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Ellison leaves DNC without job he wanted, but prepared to help unify the party

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Rep. Keith Ellison arrives at MSP airport on Feb. 26, 2017.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison arrives at Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport on Sunday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Keith Ellison isn't accustomed to losing. He won big in the last eight elections he's been involved in — the last six provided him a seat in Congress for a Minneapolis-area district.  And Ellison was willing to walk away from the U.S. House to run a beleaguered Democratic Party. 

But Ellison lost the DNC chair's race Saturday to former Obama administration Labor Secretary Tom Perez, 235 votes to 200. So he's staying put.

"I absolutely will remain in the House of Representatives," said Ellison.

He also accepted an on-stage ask from Perez to be deputy chair of the party.

About an hour later, the two stood side-by-side talking to reporters. Perez was wearing a campaign button with Ellison's name and Ellison wore one from Perez. They said the coalition had been in the works well before the chair's race was decided, which happened on a second ballot.

"We've spoken about it for some time," said Perez. "Neither of us document the days, but we've spoken about it for some time because we think it's really important. And I'm very honored that we're here together because we're the embodiment of good synergy."

Ellison says as deputy he expects to be a go-between for the national party and Democrats in Congress as they work to counter President Trump's agenda.  

Both men say they hope their show of unity will ripple through a party still trying to patch a rift from last year's presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Ellison had strong backing among the Sanders faction.

"There's no one, not just the two of us, but there's no one in this race that wanted to win at any cost," said Perez. "This race is not about Keith Ellison, it's not about Tom Perez."

Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said for the sake of the party, Ellison's new role needs to be more than symbolic.

"For me personally, I hope it is more than just a ceremonial post," said Martin. "I hope Keith is part of the inner sanctum of making decisions at the DNC and really helping drive their agenda as we move forward. Only time will tell whether or not that's going to happen. I certainly think for Tom Perez and the DNC right now, it's really incumbent on them to bring all of the supporters of Congressman Ellison into the party."

Until his term ended Saturday, former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak was one of several vice chairmen of the party. He was in Ellison's corner in the race.

Rybak said even in losing, Ellison's stature has risen tremendously.

"Keith Ellison always had a lot of support around the country, but he's now, I believe, the leading voice of progressives who want to engage in the system and make it better," said Rybak.

Rybak said he shared words of encouragement with the congressman as the race came to an end.

"I hugged Keith backstage and said, 'I've been proud of you in the past but I've never been more proud of you than the way you handled this.' It'll be hard for a few days and there will be times in a couple months from now where he'll question 'Could I have done this or that?' But the reality is he did every single thing he could and came within an eyelash."

Ellison seemed prepared for either outcome before any ballots were cast. In an interview with MPR News on the eve of the DNC election, Ellison spoke about what-ifs and said he would remain "in the fight no matter what happens."

"I love being in Congress," said Ellison. "I mean the highest honor I have ever received anywhere and anytime other than being a parent or a husband is to represent the people of the 5th Congressional District. I would return to that seat with tremendous honor and renewed vigor."

Closer to home, Ellison's return to Congress heads off a scramble for his seat that had already drawn several DFL candidates-in-waiting.