New questions complicate Ellison's bid for DNC chair

New questions complicate Ellison's bid for DNC chair
© Greg Nash

Opponents of Rep. Keith Ellison’s bid to be the next Democratic National Committee chairman are raising new questions about the Minnesota Democrat’s past to make the case that he’s unfit to be the party’s next leader.

Ellison's critics in the DNC and some supporters of Labor secretary Tom Perez, the other top candidate, are pointing to the Minnesota Democrat’s past tax troubles, campaign finance violations and minor legal issues that once led to his driver’s license being suspended as evidence that he’s ill-equipped to lead the DNC.

Some of those instances date back to the 1990s. All of the issues have been rectified and were previously used in attacks against Ellison during his first run for House in 2006.

That year, Ellison’s then-wife, Kim Ellison, who acted as his campaign treasurer, wrote to the Minneapolis Star Tribune to accept responsibility for all of the violations.

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At the time, Kim Ellison said that memory loss associated with her multiple sclerosis was the reason for the unpaid traffic tickets, late campaign finance reports and household bookkeeping errors.

But Ellison’s detractors within the DNC say that it’s evidence he can’t manage his personal life and would be a poor choice to manage an institution the size of the DNC.

Bob Mulholland, a DNC member from California and one of 447 who will vote in the February election, says he has not backed a candidate yet but will not support Ellison.

“One Republican said to me, ‘You’re going to elect a tax cheat who drives without a license?’” Mulholland said. “It’s absurd.”

“If Ellison were running as a Republican, Democrats would attack him as a tax cheat, so I have no idea why Washington insiders are urging the grassroots to elect another insider. If you can’t drive or pay taxes, you can’t organize your life, so I concluded early on that he can’t organize for this job.”

Ellison’s past incursions with campaign finance laws and the IRS have been public information for some time, but most DNC members reached by The Hill said they were hearing about it for the first time.

Ellison’s supporters are furious, and accusing his opponents of running a smear campaign against him, which they say started with accusations that Ellison is an anti-Semite.

The Minnesota Democrat has been dealing with blowback over his support as a young man for the Nation of Islam, which he has since rejected, and past comments about U.S. foreign policy being beholden to Israel.

“This is the same bullshit as people pulling up his past comments to try and paint him as an anti-Semite,” said Minnesota Democratic chairman Ken Martin, an Ellison supporter who also has a vote in the DNC race.

Martin points to Ellison’s Jewish supporters — including campaign chairman and former ambassador to Morocco Sam Kaplan — as proof that the anti-Semite accusations are “complete bullshit.”

“His opponents are looking through his past and digging up stuff from his congressional and legislative races that fell flat and that Minnesotans rejected,” Martin said. “I welcome them to keep focusing on stuff that doesn’t matter. Keith will focus on building the party up from the grassroots.”

Ellison once paid upwards of $18,000 to settle a federal lien against him over unpaid income taxes from between 1992 and 2000.

Between 2002 and 2004, when he was a state representative, the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure board subpoenaed and ultimately fined Ellison’s campaign over “discrepancies in cash balances, misclassified disbursements and unreported contributions.”

And in 2006, when Ellison was running for Congress, he acknowledged that his driver’s license had been suspended multiple times over unpaid traffic tickets.

When those offenses became an issue in his first run for House, Ellison’s then-wife Kim Ellison wrote an emotional letter to the Star Tribune, the largest paper in Minneapolis, attributing the oversights to her illness.

“I was having a tough time getting things done,” she wrote. “I didn’t want to let Keith down by resigning and I guess he didn’t want to fire me either.”

The Star Tribune reported that Ellison was unaware that his wife had written the letter. The paper said that when a reporter read the letter to Ellison, he “burst into tears.”

“She’s just trying to help me,” he said. “I don’t know what else to say other than that. She’s a very courageous woman. It took a lot of guts to do what she did. I wish she hadn’t done it. It wasn’t necessary. But she wanted to help.”

Keith and Kim Ellison separated in 2010 and later divorced.

Ellison spokesman Brett Morrow said the issues have been handled and deemed irrelevant by voters.

“When these issues arose in 2006, Keith handled them directly. And the voters of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District were never concerned about them again, as they have re-elected Keith 6 times with overwhelming margins,” Morrow said. “DNC members want to know about who will strengthen the Democratic Party's infrastructure, unite with the grassroots and increase voter turnout. That is how we win in 2018, 2020 and beyond.”

Still, some Democrats maintain that Ellison is responsible for keeping his business in order and that every element from his past will be fair game for Republicans.

“Every time he makes a statement about Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBrennan fires new shot at Trump: ‘He’s drunk on power’ Trump aides discussed using security clearance revocations to distract from negative stories: report Trump tried to dissuade Melania from 'Be Best' anti-bullying campaign: report MORE’s irresponsible policies, Republicans will come back and say, 'Who is he to talk about being irresponsible? He couldn’t even get his finances in order and got sued by the state of Minnesota, or he can’t even hold on to his driver’s license without getting it suspended,'” said one DNC member who is supporting Perez.

“Layer on that the statements he made about Israel — a lot of this stuff is blown out of proportion, but Republicans will never hesitate to blow things out of proportion,” the DNC member said. “It will diminish his credibility significantly and take the focus away from where it needs to be.

“Look — these things happened a long time ago and sometimes young people do things incorrectly and that’s probably a large part of this. But the bottom line is, it doesn’t matter. Republicans went after Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMueller recommends Papadopoulos be sentenced to up to 6 months in prison Poll: Dem opponent leads Scott Walker by 5 points Cuomo fires back at Trump: 'America is great because it rejects your hate-filled agenda' MORE for something out of law school 50 years ago in Arkansas. That’s what they do. It is a problem to have someone with baggage from the get-go.”

Still, Ellison became the early frontrunner for a reason.

Like Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersRealClearPolitics editor: Moderate Democrats are losing even when they win Sanders tests his brand in Florida Ocasio-Cortez slammed for banning press from public event MORE (I-Vt.), who has endorsed him, Ellison’s supporters are backing him with vigor and are thrilled by his dynamic public speeches and organizing abilities.

They’re not put off in the slightest by the controversies they say are being dredged up by his political opponents. Rather, they say the attacks are hardening their resolve.

“This is just plain mudslinging,” said Terry Tucker, a Colorado DNC member who backs Ellison. “These minor things, a traffic infraction or taxes, this happens to all of us, none of us are blameless. This does not disqualify you from leadership, it just shows that you’re human.”