Sanders makes pitch for Ellison as DNC chair

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHickenlooper beats back progressive challenge in Colorado primary Progressive groups urge Biden to tap Warren as running mate Young Turks host says Elizabeth Warren should be Biden's VP pick MORE (I-Vt.) campaigned for Rep. Keith Ellison to be the next Democratic National Committee chairman on Wednesday night, casting the Minnesota Democrat as the new face of a party in need of a dramatic overhaul.

Speaking at the American Federation of Teachers headquarters in Washington, D.C., in an address that was live-streamed by progressive groups across the country, Sanders made the case that Ellison’s liberal vision is the way forward for a party whose ranks were decimated in the November elections.

“Now is the time for real change in the Democratic Party, to revitalize the Democratic Party and to bring in people who have not been welcomed in the past,” Sanders said to a packed room of about 100 enthusiastic labor union members donning blue shirts. 

“We should not be afraid of new energy and new faces,” Sanders said. “We should welcome and embrace new energy and faces. Now is the time for a chair of the Democratic Party who has a very different vision of the party than those in control today. Now is the time for Keith Ellison to become chair of the Democratic Party.”

Ellison is the early front-runner for the job, racking up endorsements from labor unions and top lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

However, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who is preparing to enter the race on Thursday, is expected to compete vigorously against Ellison. South Carolina party Chairman Jaime Harrison and New Hampshire Chairman Raymond Buckley are also in the running.

Ellison has said that he will leave his seat in the House if elected, after a push for the next chairman to work on the job full-time.

Democrats are bracing for the DNC chair fight to turn into a proxy war between the progressive wing of the party, led by Sanders, and mainstream Democrats, including some in the White House who are close with Perez.

Sanders on Wednesday night took an opening shot at Perez, who steadfastly maintained his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal during the presidential election, even after Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump tweets 'we all miss' Ailes after swiping at Fox Hickenlooper beats back progressive challenge in Colorado primary Jill Biden: 'A lot of Republicans' told me on campaign trail they're 'going to vote for Joe' MORE backed away under pressure from the left.

“Keith has been there, not as a follower, but as a leader,” Sanders said. “Unlike some of the other candidates running for chair, Keith knew from day one that TPP was a disaster for working families, and he helped us defeat the TPP.” 

Some Democrats are worried about the prospect of the national party being led by a progressive, fearful that someone from the Sanders wing will chase away independents and centrists.

But Ellison, who endorsed Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary, on Wednesday night showed why he is a rising star on the left.

He is a folksy, engaging and natural speaker with a style that rouses his supporters, and he laid out Democrats' path forward under a President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUtah Lieutenant Gov. Cox leads Huntsman in close governor's race Trump tweets 'we all miss' Ailes after swiping at Fox Former NFL player Burgess Owens wins Utah GOP primary MORE.

“We have got to reset the future of the Democratic Party on a basis of grassroots activism,” Ellison said to cheers. “On the basis of working people striving every day to make a better life for themselves. African-Americans, white Americans, Latino-Americans, Asian-Americans, Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus or people of no faith at all. Folks like you and me. Folks like us need to say the Democratic Party has to be democratic and that starts with getting leadership in there to fight for that.”