Keith Ellison Says He'll Resign Congress if Elected DNC Chairman, Smoothing Path to Leadership

Ellison faced tremendous pressure on whether he could devote sufficient time and energy to the task of reviving the Democratic Party as a sitting congressman.

Rep.Keith Ellison addresses a rally of striking federal contract workers in Washington, D.C., December 7, 2016.
Nicholas Kamm, AFP

Rep. Keith Ellison took a significant step in paving the path to his election as chair of the Democratic Committee on Wednesday, announcing that he had agreed to resign his seat district in the House of Representatives if he is chosen to lead his party.

“In order to further their commitment and maximize my effectiveness, I have decided to resign as a member of Congress if I win the election for DNC chair,” Ellison said in a statement released on Wednesday. “Whoever wins the DNC chair race faces a lot of work, travel, planning and resource raising. I will be 'all-in' to meet the challenge.”

Ellison faced tremendous pressure from within his party on the issue of whether a sitting congressman could devote sufficient time and energy to the task of reviving the Democratic Party after the devastating loss of Hillary Clinton in the presidential race. The announcement came after weeks of deliberating on the decision with the realization that key DNC voting members would refuse to support a candidate for chairman who did not commit to serving in that capacity full time.  

“At this point, the Democratic Party must be the party that delivers for working people. We can do that by meeting folks where they are, looking them in the eye, treating them with respect, and working to solve their problems. For me, that means a chair with only one full time commitment,” Ellison said. 

Ellison , the first Muslim congressman in the country and the first African-American to represent the state of Minnesota, has emerged as front-runner for the key DNC post, endorsed by newly-anointed Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and by Senator Bernie Sanders is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and a member of the House Financial Services Committee the Congressional Black Caucus. 

Following Wednesday’s announcement, the biggest obstacle in Ellison’s path are hesitation by some Democrats regarding Ellison’s attitudes regarding Israel and his activism in the Nation of Islam in his youth, and defense of black nationalists who had made harsh anti-Semitic and anti-Israel statements.  

The Jewish community has been sharply divided over Ellison and his candidacy. As a congressman he has built strong alliances with progressive Jewish organizations, who have actively supported his candidacy. He has, naturally, been most strongly denounced by right-wing and Republican Jewish groups.

In between the two extremes, many mainstream Jewish Democrats, who agree with Ellison on issues of domestic policy and social justice, are nonetheless hesitant at the prospect of his leadership of his party, given his history of criticizing Israeli government policy and mixed voting record on aid to Israel.

Last Friday, Democratic mega-donor Haim Saban called Ellison “clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual” and that if chosen to lead the DNC, it “would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”

Following the publication of a fiery 2010 speech that Ellison made to Muslim activists which implied Israel had excessive influence over American foreign policy, Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League released a statement that said the Minnesota congressman’s words raised “serious doubts about his ability to faithfully represent the party’s traditional support for Israel” and that they were “both deeply disturbing and disqualifying.” 

The organization J Street, a progressive Jewish group that has long been an ally of Ellison’s came to his defense following the criticism, saying that  "The recent spate of attacks on Rep. Keith Ellison’s record of support for Israel and the Jewish community need to come to an end," calling Ellison  “a friend of Israel, a champion of pro-Israel, pro-peace policies and an admirable elected official whose thoughtful and considered leadership has shown deep respect for Jewish values and the Jewish people."