"We don’t want politicians who’ve gotta be cajoled": Keith Ellison unloads to Salon

Liberal congressman Keith Ellison tells us about Obama's legacy, saving Detroit and how he feels about Warren '16

Published July 23, 2014 3:44PM (EDT)

Keith Ellison        (AP/Alex Brandon)
Keith Ellison (AP/Alex Brandon)

A self-described activist, Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, feels at home among like-minded organizers, and says that Congress is “just a job I’m doing now.” But he’s doing it well; despite being outnumbered, the Progressive Caucus has managed to affect policy this year on a number of fronts, winning votes in Congress and executive orders at the White House.

Last weekend at Netroots Nation in Detroit, Ellison sat down with Salon to talk about partnerships with the progressive movement, the unaccompanied minors debate, corporate tax dodges and the importance of principles instead of political personalities.

So you’re actually from Detroit, right?

I was born and raised in Detroit.

So what are your thoughts on all this activism that’s going on around water shut-offs and foreclosures, and how does that play into what you guys are doing in Congress?

Well, you know, everything I know about activism I learned in Detroit, Michigan. I went to Minneapolis, another great activist town, with a foundation of activism here. Detroit is where the union movement was at its most vital, perhaps. And of course, before Martin Luther King ever gave the March on Washington he marched here, on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, marching arm in arm with Walter Reuther of the UAW and C.L. Franklin, who was a black minister at the time.

So Detroit has great roots in the civil rights movement, great roots in the labor movement, and they all come together for me. My thoughts about where Detroit is today? I mean the real story of Detroit is, Ford, GM and Chrysler basically used Detroit to make a lot of dough. And when they could take advantage of relatively lower-wage places around the world, they went there. And abandoned the workers here. That’s it. You know, I mean it’s de-industrialization. And it didn’t have to happen.

But it did happen, and so now what do we do? I think we’ve got to reinvest in Detroit, and we’ve got to make sure that pensioners don’t suffer, that people get water. That the basic needs of the people of this community are taken care of. And Detroiters know how to work, man, they built autos for generations here. And they can build anything, they can build solar panels, they can make stuff. But it’s a matter of will, and political organization.

Do you see this as almost a harbinger of what’s happening to cities all across the country?

Detroit is the canary in the coal mine. But here’s the thing about Detroit. Detroit is not dead yet, and people around the country shouldn’t think it is, nor should they think that their fate is sealed. Look, here’s another story in Detroit. I mean, these factory jobs during the 1920s and ’30s were the Wal-Mart jobs of today. They were losing fingers in a punch press, working ungodly hours, never seeing your family, getting all kinds of illnesses, getting paid crap money. And they organized and put a stop to it, and set in motion a tremendous middle class. We can do the same thing now, and start it in Detroit.

We are doing the same thing now, with things like the $15 movement for fast food workers.

That’s right. But the thing is, just like Walter Reuther and union organizers of the days gone by, we gotta organize all over again. It used to be a crime to organize a union.

It’s close to it now.

Yeah. But my point is, if they could do it, we could do it. They’re starting a lot further behind than we were.

Right. Well, let’s talk about organizing, because I’m curious how you see your role in terms of the Progressive Caucus. We heard at this conference from Rev. Barber, who talked about how movement politics must be based on strong moral principles. But you’re in the political realm, where you’re trying to get things done and be effective. Where do you see the Progressive Caucus fitting into that?

I see the Progressive Caucus as the legislative wing of the progressive movement. I see the Progressive Caucus as willing to take the aspiration and the inspiration and boil it down to a policy and a law. At the end of the day, the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott had to be converted into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. We don’t want politicians who’ve gotta be coaxed, cajoled and protested. We want them on our side from the beginning. We want them to know that the power is with the people, and we have expectations that must be met: delivering legislation and law that reflects the will of the people. That’s how I see the Progressive Caucus fitting in.

And we have made it a primary initiative of the Progressive Caucus to solidify our relationship with the progressive movement. So, we did some work that we’re really proud of on our budget. The last one, we called it the Better Off Budget. We didn’t write that budget by ourselves. The Economic Policy Institute helped us write it. The AFL-CIO people helped write it. All types of people helped write it. It was a collaborative effort. We were very proud of some of our work on getting the president to sign an executive order to raise the pay of people who work for federal contractors. Well, that was Good Jobs Nation who brought us that idea. Right now, we’re in the middle of using the appropriations process to exclude proven wage thieves from getting federal contracts, and we’ve been successful on several appropriations bills.

And that one was in collaboration with some Republicans, right?

Yeah. We got about 25 Republicans. We had a vote on the defense appropriations bill where all the Dems voted for it and about 25 Republicans voted for it. Because they don’t favor wage theft. I mean, God bless them, right? So my point is that the Progressive Caucus, we didn’t come up with that. Our collaborative partners said, why don’t you do this? So we’re not claiming any kind of genius here. We’re playing our role, we’re doing our part.

So when it comes to carbon, we’re working with Green for All, on trying to protect the carbon rule. On net neutrality, we’re working with our partners who understand the Internet better than we do. And so we see ourselves as an extension of the progressive movement. On gun legislation, on immigration reform and the unaccompanied minors issue, Raul Grijalva worked with our progressive partners and brought forth a white paper which we adopted that said children first. Children first. And we don’t want nothing to do with, in fact I firmly oppose, this hateful idea that we’re going to throw kids who could be victims of trafficking back to the wolves. We won’t do it. We’re going to be aggressive and robust in defending this idea of kids first.

Let’s say more about that. This has been elevated to a huge issue now. It does look like the Obama administration wants to use some public relations example to stop the flow up the border by saying you’re not going to stay here, you’re going to have to be put back. What is the caucus willing to do to stop that?

We’ve already taken our position on this issue. We believe that the president should be engaging in intense diplomatic efforts to reduce the level of violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. And to the degree that our war on drugs is contributing, we should stop contributing. So, you know, a PR campaign, I believe has limited hope of success if the material conditions propelling these children to leave are not going to change.

And of course they’re leaving to every country in the region, not just the United States.

Right. But the bottom line is, if these children, caught in the crossfire of desperately poor countries fighting over scraps from criminal gangs, they’re not going to not come because they heard a radio ad saying don’t come. They’re going to say, OK, am I going to run the risk, the likelihood, of being murdered, or am I going to try to leave? If they can leave, they’re going to leave. So what we’ve got to do is impact the material conditions on the ground in those countries, which I think is the proper role of the president. But we need to reevaluate our role in the war on drugs. Do we have a policy, does our drug consumption here in America, and our criminalization of what I think is fundamentally a medical problem, contribute to madness and chaos? It created madness right here in America; why shouldn’t it create madness and chaos south of the border?

I want to talk about another issue where you’re partnering, with Americans for Tax Fairness, about this inversion issue. It’s kind of a wonky issue; you have to give the ordinary person a lot of information so they understand it.

You got to give them some, but it’s very understandable.

You think so? You think it can be something that plays as a campaign issue?

I think it certainly can; I think it probably will. Because people know that these companies, they benefit from our courts, our military, our cops, our food inspection, everything, and yet they’re willing to reincorporate with another company in another country so they can pay lower taxes. Now, they want all the stuff our taxes provide, but they don’t want to pay their fair share of providing them by some accounting trick that they do. People get that. I mean, when I go and tell folks that, they get that, they understand that, and they explain it back to me in a way that I know they get it. They’re shocked that it happens.

OK, you’ve been co-chair of the Progressive Caucus what, three years now?

Three years.

What are you doing in order to make the caucus more effective?

We’re doing three things. One is working together more cohesively than ever. We’ve done several job tours, we do our Better Off Budget, we’re circulating, members introduce these amendments in appropriations, we’re doing peace and security, we’re making a new case for diplomacy and development as opposed to war. We’re making a strong case about NSA spying, for a humane immigration system. We’re working together, we’re leveraging the talent of our members.

And then, we’re strengthening our partnerships. So in the past, Progressive Caucus members might come and give a speech at Netroots and then they leave. Here, we’re cultivating relationships with partners we have been working with. You know, I’ve done two workshops here, with progressive partners, who I have ongoing sustainable relationships with. So we believe the real strength of the Progressive Caucus is in its partnership with the progressive movement. That’s why I said we see ourselves as the legislative arm. So Frank Clemente has an awesome idea on how to make taxes better. We want to work with him on doing that. He has come to our meetings, shared with us his ideas. So if Joe Giovardi and Paco Fabian from Good Jobs Nation are working on how to raise the pay of people, leveraging public dollars to get good jobs, they’re not just in our meetings, we’re on their picket lines. Our people are marching on their picket lines.

And finally, we have this PAC and we fundraise for it. And we’re trying to support progressive candidates, to populate Congress with progressive activists who then have to take on the mantle of being a member of Congress. But you know, they’re fundamentally organizers. See, I don’t see myself as a member of Congress, that’s just a job I’m doing now. I might do something else, you know? But I will go to my grave doing progressive politics.

Last thing. We almost have this disease in the media around Presidentialism. We’re now talking about 2016, I’m surprised we’re not talking about 2020 right now.

We will be soon.

So what is the role of someone who is a member of Congress, who sees themselves as an activist, who’s deeply concerned with policy, how do you shift this from people wearing hats for President Warren, pouring all their dreams into one vessel, how do you shift that conversation into, it’s time to build policies that can help people and build a movement around it?

It almost feels like we went through a metamorphosis sometime between 2004 up until when Obama was elected. We started out with Si se puede, we moved on to Yes We Can, after he got elected we said Yes You Can, and then he said Yes I Can Sometimes. Look, you gotta align your movement around principles and not people. If you align your movement around principle, then people have to adhere or not to your principle. If you align it around people, they’ve got to be your everything or they’re nothing, right? The truth is Obama has done a lot of progressive things. I know it’s kind of the order of the day to talk about our progressive disappointment. But wait a minute, what about the Lilly Ledbetter Act, what about the fact that the Affordable Care Act is better than what we had before, what about the fact that we are hopefully going to stay out of Iraq? I mean there are things we can point to.

But we have to have a cultural shift within the progressive movement that the power is with the people. We say it as a slogan, but do we really mean it? If we’re up here talking about which president is going to carry our dream for us… I mean, I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Warren, love her to death, mostly because of her fidelity to progressive ideas around fair pay, equal treatment, fair treatment, consumer justice. That’s why I love Elizabeth Warren. I’m not into anybody’s personality. And we’ve got to stay that way. And we’ve got to really institutionalize principled action. I mean, because look, the Netroots Nation has become the progressive CPAC, right? This is what we got. It may need to be more, it may need to be less, but it is what we have. And now, whether you’re Biden or Warren, you’ve got to come here. Which is great. So what we need to do is say, we’re about this, are you, aspirant for the presidency? And not expecting. We don’t want our candidate for the president to be some Rorschach test, where they seem charismatic so we figure they’re for us, but maybe they are and maybe they’re not.

By David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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