Our Pledge To You

News

Laura Washington: Minn. Dem wants to build a progressive champion

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) holds a town hall meeting at the Church of the New Covenant-Baptist on Dec.22 in Detroit, Michigan. Ellison, a candidate to lead the Democratic National Committee, spoke at the church where his brother Brian is a pastor. (Photo by Sarah Rice/Getty Images)

Harold Washington was in the house.

Last week, the spirit of Chicago’s long-gone, long-loved mayor was swaying to the blues-reggae beat at the Wild Hare & Singing Armadillo Frog Sanctuary in Lincoln Park.

The city’s first African-American mayor is inspiring U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., in his high-stakes bid to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Ellison hit the Wild Hare on a freezing Sunday afternoon to warm local elected officials, activists, union leaders and others with a pledge to fight back in the era of Donald Trump.

OPINION

“The Democratic Party has to return to its roots as a grass-roots party, as a party that really fights for working people,” the congressman from Minneapolis told reporters backstage. “The party of, you know, Harold Washington, for example.”

Washington’s 1983 mayoral campaign wrested control from the Chicago and Cook County Democratic Party by showing it had lost its way. His movement activated and empowered the voiceless, working strategically to bring them to the tables of power. His mantra: Chicago is stronger when everyone is all-in.

Thirty-four years later, Ellison aims to wrest control of his out-of-touch, flailing party.

Its left flank, led by the likes of U.S. senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wants to dismantle the apparatus of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and remake it as a progressive champion.

They are backing Ellison, an African-American community activist elected in 2006 as the first Muslim American in the U.S. Congress.

Like Washington, Ellison preaches his party lost its way, lost touch, lost the people.

“What we are doing is a reclamation,” Ellison said. He pledged to bring back “a party that knocked on doors and built relationships. And where the Democratic Party was actually more than an electoral program, it was actually a community building program.”

Ellison is touting “voter expansion,” a strategy straight out of Harold’s playbook. Washington cultivated neighborhood groups, union members, educators and others on the system’s edge, then organized, organized, and organized.

The 1983 Washington campaign registered voters at frenzied rates.  In the mayoral primary, more than 77 percent of Chicago’s eligible voters went to the polls. More than 150,000 new African-American voters registered to vote that election season.

The 2015 mayoral campaign of Cook County Board Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and the Obama presidency are heirs to the Washington legacy. The Ellison rally drew a racially diverse crowd. It brought the Washington band back together, including Garcia, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, former 46th Ward Ald. Helen Shiller, and other Washington allies and staff.  (Full disclosure: In a previous life, I served as his deputy press secretary).

“Chicago is central to the comeback,” Ellison said. “We need your advice on how to go organize.”

First, he’s got to prevail in the Feb. 24 DNC election.  His chief opponent, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, is said to be the favorite of America’s most popular and powerful Democrat, Obama.  And Ellison’s youthful association with The Nation of Islam has put him on a perilous footing with Jewish leaders.

“America will never forget what you did for Harold Washington,” he exhorted the crowd. “And we can all learn from it.”

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.