Minnesota Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison lost his bid to become the chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) on Saturday after a scorched-earth smear campaign targeting his religious faith, his affinity for the Nation of Islam in his youth, and his support for Palestinian rights alongside a secure Israel.
Instead, the majority of the DNC’s voting members chose former labor secretary Tom Perez to lead the party. After two rounds of voting in Atlanta, Perez netted 235 votes to Ellison’s 200.
Perez was widely perceived as being brought into the race by allies of President Obama, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and other members of the party establishment. One of the speakers who introduced his nomination, South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, also works as a corporate lobbyist for the D.C.-based Podesta Group. After neither candidate reached a majority of votes in the first round of voting, Harrison was on the floor, whipping votes for Perez.
Ellison — a black man, a Bernie Sanders supporter, and the first Muslim elected to Congress — earned initial support from many Democrats until a strong backlash from the Obama and Clinton camps and prominent pro-Israeli activists.
Haim Saban, the entertainment tycoon who is one of the Democratic Party’s largest donors, called Ellison both “anti-Israel” and anti-Semitic. The Anti-Defamation League called on Democrats to reject him. On the eve of the vote, prominent Democrat Alan Dershowitz proclaimed that he would leave the party if Ellison were elected chair; Jack Rosen, who leads the American Jewish Congress, emailed DNC members the day before the vote decrying Ellison’s views on the Middle East, concluding that he threatened the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Perez, on the other hand, courted pro-Israel activists during the course of the contest.
Shortly after his victory, Perez offered the newly created position of “deputy chair” to Ellison, which Ellison accepted. This is not an official position in the DNC’s bylaws so it is unclear what this position would entail. It is also unclear whether Ellison will still leave Congress, which he announced he would do if he won the chair position.
Many prominent Muslim Americans expressed disappointment in Ellison’s defeat, saying that his treatment during the course of the campaign was emblematic of how Muslims fare in public life.
The Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid, former Al Jazeera host Wajahat Ali, and prominent Muslim New Yorker Linda Sarsour reacted on Twitter:
Sadly, this is the sort of thing that's done to any Muslim who runs for office. Apparently, this DNC race wasn't enough to put an end to it https://t.co/twmFw8J6V8
— Shadi Hamid (@shadihamid) February 25, 2017
Ellison 4 2 state solution, voted to give $$ to Israel, against BDS, gets backing of respected Jewish Ams = still not enough to remove smear
— Wajahat Ali (@WajahatAli) February 25, 2017
Not going to lie. I am disappointed. I get solace knowing @keithellison keeps his seat in Congress. Hope he runs for Senate. #DNCChair
— Linda Sarsour (@lsarsour) February 25, 2017