Friday afternoon, four candidates for Democratic National Committee chair will gather in Denver to debate the future of the embattled party.
For Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the forum will be a chance to respond to a growing backlash against his bid to run the DNC.
Ellison appeared to be the early favorite when he entered the race. He earned endorsements from two powerful voices – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress. Many of his backers view Ellison’s faith as a powerful response to the incoming Trump Administration. During the campaign, Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States from foreign countries, and regularly questioned whether American Muslims are doing enough to prevent terror attacks.
But in recent weeks, there’s been a growing campaign among Democrats against Ellison. Some of the criticisms are practical, such as the Obama Administration’s apparent concerns about Ellison splitting his time and focus between serving in Congress and running the party.
Other Democrats have ideological worries that get to the heart of the 2016 presidential primary’s split between Bernie Sanders’ message of economic populism and Hillary Clinton’s more centrist, pragmatic approach to governing. Ellison supported Sanders, although he acted as a Clinton surrogate during the general election.
This week, reporting by CNN revived controversies from earlier in Ellison’s career – his decades-old work with and support for the Nation of Islam, and past statements that seemingly criticize Israel. CNN posted excerpts from several columns Ellison wrote for the University of Minnesota student newspaper, among other items.
The CNN story and other reports have caused the Anti-Defamation League to question whether Ellison should lead the DNC.
Quoting a 2010 speech in which Ellison questioned that value of the United States focusing so much of its Middle Eastern foreign policy on support for Israel, the ADL wrote that “new information recently has come to light that raises serious concerns about whether Rep. Ellison faithfully could represent the Democratic Party’s traditional support for a strong and secure Israel.”
The speech, posted by the Investigative Project on Terrorism, quotes Ellison saying that American foreign policy in the Middle East “is governed by what is good or bad through a country of 7 million people. A region of 350 million all turns on a country of 7 million. Does that make sense? Is that logic?”
Thursday night, Ellison responded with an open letter posted on Twitter. “I am committed to [Israel’s] safety and security, and I believe in the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and striving for a two-state solution.”
Ellison also addressed the broader questions about his earlier support for the Nation of Islam – an issue in his initial 2006 run for Congress – in a Medium post:
My values — going back to my childhood — were always based on respect for all people and rejection of bigotry and racism. When I first heard criticism about Louis Farrakhan, the leader of Million Man March, I felt the March’s message of empowering young African Americans was being attacked.
But I clearly didn’t go deep enough. I defended the organizer of the March in writing, but I glossed over the hurtful and divisive language he directed at other communities. In my effort to pursue justice for the African-American community, I neglected to scrutinize the words of those like Khalid Muhammed and Farrakhan who mixed a message of African American empowerment with scapegoating of other communities. These men organize by sowing hatred and division, including, anti-Semitism, homophobia and a chauvinistic model of manhood. I disavowed them long ago, condemned their views, and apologized.
The more than 400 members of the DNC will meet and vote for a new party chair in February.