Keith Ellison vows to resign House seat to lead Democratic party
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Keith Ellison vows to resign House seat to lead Democratic party

Minnesota congressman removes one of the key internal objections to his bid for DNC chair, but criticism on his Israel record and past ties to anti-Semitic figures remains

Eric Cortellessa covers American politics for The Times of Israel.

Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and other House Democrats stand in opposition to the president's trade deal during a press conference on Tuesday, June 16, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Victoria Burke/AP)
Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and other House Democrats stand in opposition to the president's trade deal during a press conference on Tuesday, June 16, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Victoria Burke/AP)

WASHINGTON — Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison pledged Wednesday to resign his seat in Congress if he wins the race to chair the Democratic National Committee, removing one of the the key internal Democratic objections to his bid six days after the Anti-Defamation League called 2010 comments he made on Israel “disqualifying” for the position.

“I have decided to resign as a member of Congress if I win the election for DNC chair,” Ellison said in a statement. “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’s statement of intent came as an increasing number of DNC officials, both past and present, as well as Democratic groups like the National Jewish Democratic Council, have said they want the next chair to hold the post full-time.

“As a former officer of the DNC and an elected member of the DNC for more than 19 years, I am convinced that this election must be about the future of the party and not a single person’s political positions,” Susan Turnbull, a former DNC vice chair and previous chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, told The Times of Israel on Monday.

“For me, anyone holding elected office is disqualified due to the nature of the position which requires a full-time chair,” she added. “If Ellison were to agree to resign if he is elected, then he should be considered along with everyone else.”

While Ellison previously stated he could manage both jobs simultaneously, DNC members sought to avoid a scenario similar to the one they had with the former chair, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., is interviewed in New York on March 21, 2016. (AP/Richard Drew)
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., is interviewed in New York on March 21, 2016. (AP/Richard Drew)

Wasserman Schultz, who was forced to resign last summer after leaked emails revealed DNC officials discussing ways to aid Hillary Clinton’s candidacy over rival Bernie Sanders, was often criticized for appearing to place her personal political interest over that of the party.

Since Wasserman Schultz’s July resignation, longtime Democratic strategist Donna Brazile has been the interim chair.

Ellison’s DNC bid has ignited an intense debate within the American Jewish and pro-Israel community about what his ascension would mean for the Democratic Party and its official stance on Israel.

Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, has been an outspoken critic of many Israeli government policies throughout his career in public life, most notably for its continued settlement enterprise and its fierce military response during periods of intensified conflict with the Palestinians.

He has also come under fire for his past association with the Nation of Islam and his repeated defenses of its leader, noted anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, and other radical figures.

During his first run for Congress in 2006, Ellison apologized for failing to “adequately scrutinize the positions” of Farrakhan, and recognized them as anti-Semitic.

Since announcing his candidacy for the leadership post, he has also insisted his support for Israel and that any criticism comes from a place of friendship. He has emphasized his backing of a two-state solution, which he says is in the best interests of both sides of the conflict, and his having voted for more than $27 billion in foreign aid to Israel.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt speaking at the organization’s Never is Now conference in New York City, Nov. 17, 2016. (Courtesy of the ADL)
ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt speaking at the organization’s Never is Now conference in New York City, Nov. 17, 2016. (Courtesy of the ADL)

But Ellison’s bid to lead the Democrats’ largest umbrella group intensified last week, when the ADL criticized him for the newly revealed six-year-old comments in which he implied US foreign policy is dictated by Israeli interests — remarks the Jewish civil rights group deemed “disqualifying.”

Ellison responded in an open letter to the ADL, saying his comments were “taken out of context” and that the audio of his address, given at a private fundraiser, was “selectively edited.”

The Investigative Report on Terrorism — which first released the recording of the speech — responded to that allegation by publishing a follow-up of the entire audio, which divulged the Congressman further said the US “can’t allow another country to treat us like we’re their ATM,” referring to Israel, but that “it makes all the sense in the world when you see that that country has mobilized its Diaspora in America to do its bidding in America.”

Ellison also said: “I’m looking for public diplomacy. You understand what I am saying? Public diplomacy. And this is not to say that I don’t want the US to be friends with Israel. I just want the United States to have a lot of friends. Right? And to be in a position with the friend to say – you are wrong and you must stop.”

In his letter to the ADL, Ellison claimed the speech was designed to energize Arab Americans to be more engaged in the political process to be more influential in US foreign policy.

Jewish leaders and organizations have been notably divided on Ellison’s candidacy. Democratic megadonor Haim Saban stunned many at the annual Saban Forum this weekend by calling the Minnesota Democrat “clearly an anti-Semite and anti-Israel individual,” who “would be a disaster for the relationship between the Jewish community and the Democratic Party.”

Others, however, have defended him, including the liberal advocacy group J Street and incoming Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, one of the most prominent Jewish members of Congress.

“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,” J Street said in a statement. “It is time to retire the playbook that aims to silence any American official seeking high office who has dared to criticize certain Israeli government policies.”

The internal DNC election will take place in February.

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