- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Kansas Democratic Party was searching for a big name to headline its annual dinner and asked the candidates running to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee for help landing a guest.

Rep. Keith Ellison responded with the sexiest of offers: He could get them Sen. Bernard Sanders, the Vermont independent who lit the party on fire with his presidential bid last year.

Mr. Sanders has gone all in for Mr. Ellison, even changing his travel plans to make the Kansas dinner, state party officials said.

He was also one of Mr. Ellison’s early backers, helping establish the Minnesotan as the pick of anti-establishment types in the party’s liberal wing and in the race for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship.

Some Democrats are privately wondering what Mr. Sanders will get in return for his efforts behind Mr. Ellison, one of two front-runners in a surprisingly large field of candidates for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.

Either way, the election of the DNC chairman on Saturday in Atlanta is shaping up as the next big test of the movement Mr. Sanders built.

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“Bernie will fight within the Democratic Party, and his push for Ellison is real,” said Larry Jacobs, professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. “He knows — as demonstrated by his presidential run — that life outside the two main national parties is a fool’s errand. It excites the extremes but never delivers much.”

But Nick Brana, a former Sanders campaign staffer who launched a Draft Bernie for a People’s Party movement, warned that many Sanders supporters have already left while others are trying to decide whether to remain in the party or find an alternative.

Mr. Brana told The Washington Times that Mr. Ellison has disappointed progressives by moving to the center in his bid to become DNC chairman but said he remains a much better option than his chief opponent, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who has the support of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and is seen as the preferred candidate of former President Barack Obama.

So a loss, he said, would send a clear message.

“I think for a lot of the people, it would be the final nail in the coffin, and it should be,” Mr. Brana said. “I think a lot of people would really get the picture that this party is not a party that intends to embrace its progressive base at all.”

He also said that even if Mr. Ellison wins he will struggle to change the corrupt culture of the DNC.

“I am not cheering for Ellison to lose,” he said. “What I am cheering for is for people to realize whoever wins the party won’t change. I think Ellison is a good progressive at heart. I think the problem is that he is working within a structure that doesn’t allow you to express your progressive values.”

Sanders supporters are still smarting over what they believe was a presidential primary process rigged to derail Mr. Sanders and select Hillary Clinton as the nominee.

The DNC chairwoman at the time, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, was forced to resign after leaked emails showed her plotting against Mr. Sanders.

Many progressives believe Mr. Sanders would have defeated Republican candidate Donald Trump. They argue that Mr. Sanders’ message would have resonated more with the working-class voters in the Rust Belt and Midwest who chose Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton in the Nov. 8 election.

At a forum Sunday sponsored by the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Sanders grinned when an audience member bellowed out, “Bernie 2020.” It has become a slogan among supporters urging the senator to take another crack at the nation’s top office.

Mr. Sanders said he is focused on mobilizing the grass roots around a progressive agenda, pushing back against the Trump agenda and helping Democrats rebound from a series of election setbacks, including the party’s loss of over 900 seats in state legislatures over the past decade.

“When you have a failed record like that, it is time to reappraise where the Democratic Party is and how it can move forward in a new direction,” Mr. Sanders said at the forum.

Electing Mr. Ellison as DNC chairman would be a move in the right direction, he said.

“I hope you will do everything that you can to help elect Keith Ellison as the next chair,” Mr. Sanders said. “He understands as I do that what we need to do is create a grass-roots party — that we need millions of people in that party having the courage to take on the billionaire class, and mobilize the American people to stand up and fight back in a way that we have not seen in the recent history of this country.”

Mr. Sanders has refused to rule out another campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, as well as a third-party bid in four years.

“Right now,” Mr. Sanders said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “I am working to bring fundamental reform to the Democratic Party, to open the doors of the Democratic Party to working people, to lower-income people, to young people, who have not felt welcome in the embrace of the Democratic Party.”

Mr. Brana has said Mr. Sanders’ refusal to bow to pressure from the Democratic establishment shows he is willing to give a third-party run serious consideration and that the mission of grass-roots activists is now to convince Mr. Sanders that the best way to deliver progressive change is by carving out his own path.

“He is giving us an opening,” Mr. Brana said this week on the “Jimmy Dore Show.”

For now, though, Mr. Sanders remains one of the hottest draws for Democrats, perhaps second only to Mr. Obama. And Kansas Democrats will reap the rewards.

“Congressman Keith Ellison’s campaign helped put this together,” said Kerry Gooch, executive director of the Kansas Democrats. “We told all the people running for chair about our search for speakers, and [Mr. Ellison] got back and said, ‘How about I help you get Sen. Sanders?’ and we said, ‘Hell yeah.’

“It is a humongous draw for us,” Mr. Gooch said. “We have had to sell 3,000 tickets, and we expect to sell out.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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