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Keith Ellison Loses DNC Chair Race After Smear Campaign over His Support for Palestinian Rights

StoryFebruary 27, 2017
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Zaid Jilani

staff reporter at The Intercept. His latest article is "Keith Ellison Loses DNC Race After Heated Campaign Targeting Him for His Views on Palestine."


Former Labor Secretary Tom Perez has been elected to lead the Democratic National Committee, beating out Minnesota Congressmember Keith Ellison in a contentious second-round vote that is seen as determining the future of the Democratic Party. Congressmember Ellison is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the first Muslim elected to Congress. He was widely backed by supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party’s more progressive wing. Perez was backed by the party’s establishment, including President Obama. He becomes the first Latino head of the Democratic Party. After Saturday’s contentious vote—which marked the first time in more than 30 years that the outcome was not known ahead of balloting—Ellison’s supporters erupted in protest, chanting "Party for the people, not big money." We speak to Zaid Jilani, staff reporter at The Intercept. His latest article is "Keith Ellison Loses DNC Race After Heated Campaign Targeting Him for His Views on Palestine."


TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a major story that broke this weekend. Juan?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez has been elected to lead the Democratic National Committee, beating out Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison in a contentious second-round vote that is seen as determining the future of the Democratic Party. Congressman Ellison is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the first Muslim elected to Congress. He was widely backed by supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party’s more progressive wing. Perez was backed by the party’s establishment, including President Obama. He becomes the first Latino head of the Democratic Party. After Saturday’s vote, which marked the first time in more than 30 years that the outcome was not known ahead of the balloting, Ellison’s supporters erupted in protest, chanting "Party for the people, not big money."

PROTESTERS: Party for the people, not big money! Party for the people, not big money!

AMY GOODMAN: Tom Perez quickly appointed Ellison deputy party chair, which was a new position. Standing together, they both urged party unity. This is Tom Perez.

TOM PEREZ: Where do we go from here? Because right now we have to face the facts. We are suffering from a crisis of confidence, a crisis of relevance. We need a chair who can not only take the fight to Donald Trump, make sure that we talk about our positive message of inclusion and opportunity, and talk to that big tent of the Democratic Party. We also need a chair who can lead turnaround and change the culture of the Democratic Party and the DNC.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Washington, where we’re joined by Zaid Jilani, staff reporter at The Intercept. His latest article, "Keith Ellison Loses DNC Race After Heated Campaign Targeting Him for His Views on Palestine." So, explain, Zaid.

ZAID JILANI: Yeah, well, it’s really interesting. Keith Ellison started out very strong in this race. He received endorsements not only from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but also from Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer, from a wide variety of labor unions. I mean, in a way, he really was the unity candidate in that he had brought together Sanders backers and Clinton backers.

But as the campaign developed, we started to see more and more negative hits pop up in the media. We saw one of the largest donors of the Democratic Party, entertainment tycoon Haim Saban, who’s an Israeli-American businessman, come out and say that he’s an anti-Semite, say that he’s anti-Israel. The Anti-Defamation League called on Keith Ellison to be disqualified. The night before the vote, delegates were getting emails from the American Jewish Congress saying that, you know, Keith will be really bad for the U.S.-Israel relationship and that he shouldn’t be confirmed.

There was a widespread sort of smear campaign targeting Keith Ellison for his view about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is actually quite moderate. You know, he believes in a secure Israel. He’s voted for aid to Israel most of the time. But he also believes in rights for Palestinians. He opposes the blockade on Gaza. He opposes the settlement construction. And he’s been vocal about that. And he’s talked to both sides, and he’s been very close to both the American Jewish community and the American Muslim community.

But, unfortunately, there are a number of big donors to the Democratic Party who feel like moderation isn’t really what they need, that what we need is a relationship between Israel where we have absolutely no daylight. And this is all coming despite the fact that the DNC chairman actually has no role whatsoever in setting Middle East policy, and yet we still saw this campaign of innuendo and smears come out against Ellison.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Zaid, the particular role of President Obama and his main staff on this vote?

ZAID JILANI: Well, it’s really interesting. The night before and also the day of, we saw President Obama, his close aides, such as Valerie Jarrett, making phone calls on behalf of Tom Perez, which is really interesting because what we saw here was that there were forces close to Obama and close to Clinton moving in at the last moment, when it appeared that Keith might be successful, to reassert their control over the party.

Now, you have to remember that one of Keith’s big sort of reasons for running for this position is because he wanted to sever the link between big money and the operation of the Democratic Party. And, of course, a lot of these members themselves are consultants. They’re lobbyists. One of the men who nominated Tom Perez during the convention is actually a corporate lobbyist for the Podesta Group. You know, he worked for clean coal. He worked—so-called clean coal. He worked for General Dynamics. I mean, this was literally a lobbyist that was going around whipping votes for Tom Perez. So, I think what we saw here was that the party asserted itself against a rising candidate to try to maintain control and to keep power away from the grassroots.

AMY GOODMAN: After Tom Perez was elected chair of the DNC, Donald Trump tweeted, "The race for the DNC chairman was, of course, totally 'rigged.' Bernie’s guy, like Bernie himself, never had a chance. Clinton demanded Perez!" That’s what Trump tweeted. Bernie Sanders appeared on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday. Host Jake Tapper asked Sanders if he thought Trump had a point.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: No, he doesn’t have a point. That’s what the system is. And one of the things that Tom is going to have to change is to figure out how we elect national Democratic leaders. I am not quite impressed with the process that now exists.

AMY GOODMAN: Tapper also asked Senator Sanders if he’d be handing over his, what, 2 million or so member list to the DNC. He did not say he would. Zaid Jilani, your response?

ZAID JILANI: Well, it’s really interesting. Right before Keith Ellison was actually defeated, the DNC actually voted on a resolution that would have barred corporate lobbyists and also corporate donations to the DNC, and that resolution was voted down. And actually, a lot of the very same arguments that were used at the DNC were used at the RNC over the summer, when a few reformist Republicans tried to put up a similar resolution. You know, they said, "Hey, you’ll be banning farmers and pastors and people who represent domestic violence clinics." All these things are complete nonsense, of course. But I think what you saw is, both parties have an addiction to an establishment and to people who have a rooted sort of sense of power and a sense of privilege, and they’re refusing to sort of turn over power to the grassroots.

So when the Democrats ask for Bernie Sanders’ email list, I mean, it’s not like, you know, Cory Booker can use that list, and someone who gave $10 to Bernie Sanders is going to be enthusiastic about giving money to someone who votes with big pharmaceuticals or someone who votes with Wall Street or someone who, you know, helped smear Keith Ellison for his very moderate views on Israel-Palestine. I mean, I don’t think that list is a magic tool for the Democratic Party. If they want small donors like that giving to them, then they should sever their link to the big donors. No one’s going to be—you know, no one who’s poor or working-class is going to give you money if they feel like their money isn’t going to influence, just the big donors are.

AMY GOODMAN: Zaid, we have five seconds. The significance of Ellison being made the deputy co-chair of the DNC, a new position?

ZAID JILANI: Well, it’s not a position in the bylaws. It seems like sort of an advisory role. But, you know, it’s probably positive that he’ll be staying in Congress now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us, Zaid Jilani of The Intercept. We’ll link to your piece.

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