Rep. Keith Ellison has quietly promised labor leaders that he would give up his seat in Congress in order to win the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, putting himself out on a limb for the top party job.
The Minnesota Democrat at first hemmed and hawed last month when asked whether he’d make that dramatic move, but eventually he told a closed-door meeting of AFL-CIO officials that if he had to do it, he’d give up his seat in Congress, according to multiple sources familiar with the exchange.
The previous chair, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, kept her congressional job and faced criticism for conflicts of interest between the two roles, and for failing to give enough attention to party-building.
That’s left a number of high-powered Democrats saying the next chairman must devote more time and send a clear signal their sole priority will be the DNC.
Mr. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, has been unwilling to go that far in public, saying his work ethic would allow him to juggle his duties in Congress with those of leading the party, and saying the status of the chair is not to blame for depressed turnout that hurt Democrats in the election.
“I say to folks, ‘Can we keep the main thing the main thing, and discuss that?’” Mr. Ellison said last month.
His congressional office didn’t answer repeated inquiries from The Washington Times over the nature of the promise he made to the AFL-CIO at the Nov. 22 meeting.
Mr. Ellison won re-election in November, and since announcing his bid to lead the DNC has faced unflattering reports about his past calls for a separate black state in America, ties to Louis Farrakhan and comments about Israel, which the Anti-Defamation League said were “disqualifying.”
As a result, Democrats have wondered whether the 53-year-old is the best person to help the party reconnect in 2018 with the working-class voters who abandoned the party this year.
Concerns about Mr. Ellison have opened the door for his current rivals — New Hampshire Democratic Chair Raymond Buckley and South Carolina Democratic Chairman Jaime Harrison — as well as others mulling bids, including Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez and Phil Angelides, former California state treasurer and the 2006 Democratic nominee for California governor.
Mr. Ellison has also lost some of the momentum that was fueling his bid last month after he collected endorsements from incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who was backed by Mr. Ellison in the Democratic presidential primary.
Buoyed by that support, the Minnesota congressman met with the AFL-CIO’s political committee, which also met with Mr. Buckley and Mr. Harrison, as it weighed the possibility of making an endorsement in the race before the vote in late February.
It was there that Mr. Ellison, who has a 98 percent lifetime rating with the ACLU, said if push came to shove, he would be willing to step down from Congress to take over at the DNC.
Mr. Buckley and Mr. Harrison, meanwhile, were less wishy-washy in their responses to the AFL-CIO, telling the group — as each has also stated publicly — that the job is full-time.
While Ms. Wasserman Schultz and then-Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine pulled double duty as party chair, Mr. Harrison told The Times Tuesday the difference this go-round is that Republicans Donald Trump and Mike Pence will be in the White House following eight years of President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden.
“I think the role of DNC chair changes dramatically when we don’t have the White House,” he said. “With that I think it has to be someone who is willing to commit 100 percent of their time to the job.”
Mr. Harrison said the votes are not there for a part-timer.
“I don’t think anybody can win this chairmanship unless they make a commitment to serving full-time,” he said.
Following the meetings with the candidates, AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka fired off an email to the entire AFL-CIO’s executive council, saying “it was clear from the discussion that, to the extent endorsements have been made, Congressman Keith Ellison is the leader,” and adding that “in a straw poll, a strong majority of the Political Committee indicated that the AFL-CIO should endorse Congressman Ellison at this time.”
The email included a ballot that provided recipients with options of endorsing Mr. Ellison, making no endorsement at this time or abstaining from the vote.
The deadline for voting closed Tuesday. The AFL-CIO did not respond to requests seeking the results.
Mr. Trumka’s letter sparked a backlash from other labor leaders.
Harold A. Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Firefighters, accused Mr. Trumpka of boosting Mr. Ellison despite a lack of unanimity and qualms about rushing into an endorsement.
“Your attempt to pre-ordain the result by including the name of only a single candidate on the ballot is contemptible,” Mr. Schaitberger said in a response.
“Ironically, we, you and others within our movement talk about fair elections and allowing democracy to flourish,” he said. “That’s what we should be doing with this process — allowing the potential candidates a chance to get into the race and then weighing very carefully who will have the backs of our members and lead the Democratic Party in a way that finally recognizes the importance of all people who work for a living.”