Remembering When Obama Blocked Keith Ellison From Leading The Democratic Party

Isheka N. Harrison
Written by Isheka N. Harrison
Keith Ellison
Former President Barack Obama and his administration were instrumental in blocking then U.S. Rep Keith Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, from leading the Democratic National Committee (DNC). In the original photos, left to right, Keith Ellison sells “Final Call” newspapers; Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a rally to support Florida Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) at the Ice Palace film studios on November 02, 2018 in Miami, Florida. Senator Nelson (D-FL) and candidate Andrew Gillum are in tight races against their Republican opponents. Credit: MPI10 / MediaPunch /IPX; and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez speaks during the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Manchester, NH. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

During his second term in office, former President Barack Obama and his administration were instrumental in blocking then U.S. Rep Keith Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, from leading the Democratic National Committee (DNC). It was a move eerily like, and shortly after, the committee supported Hilary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. It was also further confirmation that the DNC indeed plays favorites.

After Democrats lost horribly in the 2016 elections, Ellison was one of the most prominent leaders in the party, according to The Week. The publication said the Minnesota congressman was “the perfect choice” for the role at the time – and may have cruised to victory unchallenged.

However, after objections from The White House, Obama’s then Labor Secretary Tom Perez entered the race. The Intercept and others who covered the tug of war within the party called it a fight between the established, right-wing and centrist Democrats and insurgent, left-wing Democrats.

“ … the race has become something of an impassioned proxy war replicating the 2016 primary fight: between the Clinton/Obama establishment wing (which largely backs Obama Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who vehemently supported Clinton) and the insurgent Sanders wing (which backs Keith Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to the U.S. Congress, who was an early Sanders supporter),” Glenn Greenwald wrote.

According to the New York Times, Perez was encouraged by the White House to run to prevent Ellison from snagging the top job.

“But after steadily adding endorsements from leading Democrats in his bid to take over the party, Mr. Ellison is encountering resistance from a formidable corner: the White House,” the Times wrote. “In a sign of the discord gripping the party, President Obama’s loyalists, uneasy with the progressive Mr. Ellison, have begun casting about for an alternative, according to multiple Democratic officials close to the president.”

In addition to Ellison being very progressive, he is also a Muslim who supports reparations for slavery. Past comments of him defending Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan were used against him and a “smear campaign” about his character ensued. One writer said, “The Democratic establishment waged war on Keith Ellison. We should respond in kind.”

Perez went on to win the DNC chairman role, appeasing the moderate and right wings of the party. But Perez appointed Ellison his vice-chair. After the entire ordeal in an interview with The Hill, Ellison didn’t mince words when he placed the party’s 2016 losses on Obama’s shoulders.

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After saying he was “a great fan” of Obama’s and “totally voted for many of the things he supported,” the Minnesota lawmaker said the 44th president’s legacy was in jeopardy and it was his own fault.

“Wonderful achievements. But Barack Obama could have been a better party leader, and I think the fact that he wasn’t put his legacy in jeopardy,” Ellison said. “Your legacy is not a building that he’s going to construct in Chicago housing his presidential papers. … His legacy is the work he’s done, which I believe is tremendous. But given we lost a lot of statehouse seats, governorships, secretary of states, his true legacy is in danger, and I think he can’t say that he wasn’t part of those losses. Who else, right?”

Now, four years later, the DNC finds itself once again embroiled in controversy over the botched Iowa Caucus results. Three days after ballots were cast, there is still uncertainty over who actually won.

Official tallies show Mayor Pete Buttigieg has a narrow lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders, but malfunctions with the smartphone app used to report tallies and voter uncertainty has caused Perez to call for recanvass of results.

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Though Ellison left Congress last year to become Minnesota’s Attorney General, one can only wonder if this would have happened under his leadership. It is a question that the Obama White House stopped from being answered.