Liberal Rep. Keith Ellison Launches Bid For Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced on Tuesday that he will be running for Minnesota Attorney General, giving up his seat in Congress. NPR's Michel Martin talks to him about that decision.

Liberal Rep. Keith Ellison Launches Bid For Minnesota Attorney General

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There's been a lot of focus on the number of Republicans who've decided to leave the House of Representatives at the end of this term, 44 so far. It's more than twice as many as the number of Democrats who are planning to leave, but it's been encouraging to Democrats who are very eager to take back control of the House. But on Tuesday, Democrat Keith Ellison flipped the script. The progressive party leader from Minnesota, deputy chair of the DNC, made the surprise announcement that he will not run for re-election in his district, Minnesota's 5th. Instead, he entered the race for Minnesota attorney general. We wanted to talk to him about that and other things related to the party, and he was kind enough to come by our studios in Washington, D.C. Congressman Ellison, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

KEITH ELLISON: Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So what can you do as attorney general of one state that you can't do as a member of Congress?

ELLISON: Well, just over the last 24 hours, Jeff Sessions, our U.S. attorney general, has said he will not defend legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act. So that's bad because if they don't defend it, then what happens? I mean, maybe it just goes down. But states attorney general led by Xavier Becerra, organized his colleagues around the country and they are the ones defending the Affordable Care Act. The same can be said for attacks on net neutrality, on the census. You know, the Trump administration is trying to inject a question that is likely to reduce reporting in compliance with the census. And so states attorney generals have been fighting for people's rights even when the federal government won't do it.

MARTIN: If you had stayed in Congress, it seems logical that you would rise in another leadership role within the party. As I mentioned, you are already deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, so you're already a political leader. It seems that if the Democrats do succeed in taking over the House, as they hope to do, that you would become a leader in the House as well because of your seniority. That's not worth it?

ELLISON: It is worth it. It's important. I really love being a member of Congress, and it's a great honor to represent my district. But I think that it is also important to remember that so much of the lives people live are lived at the state level. Now, as a member of Congress, I can vote for or against a bill. I can introduce legislation.

I've got to go find 218 other people to vote with me. Then I got to get the Senate to do it. Then I got to get the president to sign it. And that is very important work and I've actually done that many times. But as state attorney general, as attorney general for the state of Minnesota, I could say, you know what? What happened to you is not only not right but it's illegal, and we're not going to stand for it and do something direct and immediate. And that appeals to me.

MARTIN: There is concern that the Democratic National Committee is still trying to figure out how to bring the Democratic Party back together after a very fractious presidential primary season. It's been reported that there are still, you know, hard feelings from the so-called Sanders wing and the so-called Clinton wing. Now we've seen this big surge of interest in running for office this year to the point where some of these Democratic primaries are so crowded that people are kind of worried that some of the party is going to cannibalize itself, and that didn't happen in California, which is what the concern, you know, was.

So, on the one hand, you've got this kind of this good-news story for the Democrats which is there's a surge of interest and a lot of energy and enthusiasm among the base. But you still have this kind of lingering bad taste. So, first of all, is that true? Is there this sort of this lingering tension, and what do you think you've done to repair that?

ELLISON: Do you remember Will Rogers? He said something like, hey, I'm not a member of an organized political party. I'm a Democrat. But my point is, look. The thing I love about the Democratic Party is that we have core shared values, but beyond that, there's a lot of diversity of opinion, a lot of different approaches. And you know what? It's fine. I think you just have to have a certain amount of tolerance for change and that is the deal.

And I tell you this, Michel, when more than one candidate is in a primary, they all will draw on their own base. Now some of those bases overlap but they all have a little unique niche that that candidate speaks to that maybe the other ones don't. Now if we can somehow manage to not damage each other in the primary process, then what happens is that we go into the general with a bigger group united behind one candidate. Now, we have a lot of healing to do, but the healing is not about Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

MARTIN: But there are still debates, as you mentioned, within the Democratic Party.


MARTIN: And one of those arguments is the question of whether the current leadership is appropriately open to the aspirations and ideas of the next generation of Democratic leaders.


MARTIN: Now you mentioned that Xavier Becerra, a former congressman, is the current California attorney general who left Congress to run for attorney general. He's among that group who'd been very aggressive in challenging the Trump administration. You do wonder, though, whether that's a sign that leaders in your generation feel that they aren't making enough headway in Congress and that they have to go to the states in order to really show the leadership that they're capable.

ELLISON: You know, it's a good question. I could tell you that whenever I go to Dem Caucus and I hear Nancy, you know, speaking in front of all of us, I always...

MARTIN: The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi.

ELLISON: Yeah, I always get inspired. You know, I really do. I mean, there's something about the way she articulates what we believe in and what we stand for that always makes me feel like she's the right one to be there. And look, there will be change. Change is a natural thing. But so far, she's not sitting on top of anybody. She is legitimately the leader of that Dem Caucus.

MARTIN: And before we let you go - Ramadan Mubarak, by the way.

ELLISON: Ramadan Mubarak, my friend.

MARTIN: Ramadan is almost over, and that's my way of pointing out that you are the first Muslim elected to the...


MARTIN: ...U.S. Congress.


MARTIN: And you're still one of only two. I do wonder, is there anything you were going to miss about that position of visibility, which has been important, I think, to many American Muslims, in fact, I think Muslims around the world? I think it was noted that you were actually a sitting member of Congress when you made the hajj...

ELLISON: Yes, I was.

MARTIN: ...And traveled to Mecca. And that was important to a lot of people. It was an important symbol for many people around the world to see that Muslims are visible as visible leaders in the American government. And I do wonder if there's anything about that position that you will miss.

ELLISON: I'm sure I will miss it. But I can tell you that there's this whole new generation of young Muslim leaders that are running. I mean, in my race, I have not endorsed anyone, but I can tell you that there's a young woman named Ilhan Omar who's not just Muslim but she's the first Somali elected to any state legislative seat in the country. There's a woman named Rashida Tlaib in Detroit. There's a young man who is Muslim, Ammar Najjar, I think in California.

They're running. They're running all over the place. They're running in state legislatures. In Muslim-American political culture, back when I ran the first time, you'd even hear some leaders say, well, maybe voting is not, you know, what we do. Now, that is a dismissed point of view and the general body of Muslims all over the country are trying to vote. They're trying to get involved. They're trying to be on county boards, city councils, and a few are now running for Congress. I mean, I was the first. Thank God I wasn't the last. And I see many more folks coming up right now.

MARTIN: That's Keith Ellison. He is the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee. He made the announcement that he will not run for re-election to his congressional seat - instead, that he's entering the race for Minnesota attorney general. Congressman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ELLISON: Thank you, Michel.

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