Rep. Keith Ellison On Why He Deserves To Be DNC Chairman
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Democrats are looking for something to get excited about. Maybe they'll find it today when House Democrats get together on Capitol Hill to elect their new leadership. Early next year, the national party will elect a new chair. And one name that has emerged is Keith Ellison. He's a Minnesota congressman who made news when he was elected a decade ago, becoming the first Muslim to serve in Congress. Ellison pointed to one very important skill.
KEITH ELLISON: I'm particularly good at turnout. So in my district, I had the lowest voter turnout in 2006. And now I have the highest turnout in the state of Minnesota. And Minnesota is the highest turnout state in the country.
ELLISON: As chairman of the DNC, Ellison says he would replicate that kind of turnout on a national scale. But we spoke yesterday about some history that could stand in the way.
GREENE: Congressman, I want to ask you about something that seems to have haunted you for many years ago. And that was when you were younger, defending Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who's considered by many to be anti-Semitic. What is your attitude towards him and to the Nation of Islam today?
ELLISON: I'll just say, you know, over the course of the last quarter century I've learned a lot. And the main thing I've learned is that we're better together and that our society needs inclusion - right? - not exclusion.
GREENE: Do you regret defending him at a point earlier in your life?
ELLISON: Yeah. But, you know, I was very proud to be part of the Million Man March. I think it's one of the best things that I ever did. Just the fact that, you know, at the time I didn't pay close enough scrutiny to some of the other things that he was saying. You know, that's something I just live and learn.
And hopefully, you know, folks will look at the good things that I've done over the years, you know, my 10 years in Congress, my 12 years in state legislature, my many years of community organizing for the environment, for police accountability, for criminal justice reform, economic empowerment, trying to fight for small-business people, all these things, you know? But here's the real thing. Democrats got to understand that the first line in the Republican playbook is going to be smear, you know? And there's nobody who's going to be able to avoid it.
GREENE: But it sounds like this is not a smear of you. I mean, it sounds like there are some concerns among some in the party. I mean, do you think that those earlier comments might be one reason that you haven't gotten full-throated support from the White House and people close to President Obama at this point?
ELLISON: No, I don't think so. And let me just tell you, if you ignore somebody's record and only focus on something that happened 25 years ago when all they were doing even then was trying to stand up for a minority group that felt excluded and discriminated against, then I don't - I think that is a distortion of a person's record. I mean, a person's record is full, not just the parts that you want to use against them.
GREENE: The New York Times wrote that you had scheduled an interview with them and your office canceled it after your staff learned that The New York Times might ask about your earlier comments about Louis Farrakhan. Is that true? And if so, are you worried about that becoming more of an issue than you'd like?
ELLISON: I wasn't privy to any of that. I was on an airplane at the time.
GREENE: OK. So you're not saying that's not true, but it's - you didn't know that your staff was doing that?
ELLISON: No, I didn't know about that. But I can tell you this, I'm happy to talk to anybody about anything. But I hope what we can talk about is something that happened, you know, within the last 25 years, the things that are relevant to our country right here, right now, including all people, fighting for the rights of working people, fighting for the rights of people struggling for dignity and respect in our society.
One of the most important things we can do right now is empower ordinary working Americans who really do deserve a fair shot in this economy. But I'm not afraid to talk about any issue. But I do believe it is a distraction.
GREENE: When it comes to the things you're talking about, what did the Clinton campaign do wrong beyond the issue of turnout?
ELLISON: You know, I'm not here to say what they did wrong. I mean, there's going to be plenty of post-mortem review of what should have gone differently. We do know that she was probably attacked and smeared as much as any candidate ever has been. We know that.
GREENE: But don't you need to figure out what her campaign did wrong if you're saying you want to run the party and improve things?
ELLISON: Well, here's what I'm saying, that there is now ongoing a post-mortem review of what could have gone better and what mistakes may have been made.
GREENE: But you've got to have some ideas yourself if you're thinking about running the party? I mean, what are a couple of things that you think the party and the Clinton campaign didn't do well?
ELLISON: Well, let me tell you, I'd rather frame them in terms of what I think we need to do going forward, right? Because, you know, basically, I'm not here to cast aspersions on anyone. I'm trying to unify the party, not find fault, right? So what I'm saying is we need to get much more granular.
We've got to build a durable relationship of trust with voters around the things that they are most concerned about, right? And what that is, is one, how to make a living and how to be respected and treated fairly in this society. Those two things are very critical to where we need to go next.
GREENE: Do you want to avoid seeming like you're criticizing the Clinton camp because you have some work to do in getting some of those more establishment Democrats on board for you to get this job?
ELLISON: No. I want to avoid sounding like I'm criticizing because I don't have all the facts in front of me yet. And I am trying to be a unifier. And publicly criticizing people, even when I don't have the facts, is not that good of an idea.
I think it's a good idea to be - to fairly identify where things could have gone better once you get the facts, once you get the data and once you're able to review. But after I win the job and even in the course of seeking it, we're going to be building bridges. And we're going to be meeting people and addressing the concerns that they have.
GREENE: You sound confident.
ELLISON: I am.
GREENE: All right. Congressman Ellison, thanks so much for talking to us.
ELLISON: Thank you.
GREENE: Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.