Ellison's tune-up of caucus could shift Democratic Partyby Brett Neely, Minnesota Public Radio
Washington — In Washington, D.C. Wednesday, a coalition of liberal groups joined by Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison rallied at the Capitol to try to get Congress to focus on job creation instead of budget cuts.
The rally is part of a new effort by Ellison to excite progressive groups ahead of next year's election. He was on hand to excite the crowd of several hundred people from the political left, many of them members of labor unions and liberal groups.
"Let me tell you the good news, the progressive movement is on the upswing!" he told the crowd.
Liberal congressmen speaking to liberal groups is hardly noteworthy, but what is new is that Ellison and his co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., are trying to turn the caucus into a liberal version of the Republican Study Committee.
That group is a highly disciplined message and parliamentary machine that counts a majority of congressional Republicans among its members, including Minnesota's John Kline and Michele Bachmann.
Ellison said that kind of organizing hasn't come naturally for some in his party.
"There's the old joke, 'I'm not a member of an organized political party, I'm a Democrat'" Ellison said. "That's a joke and it's not meant to be real, but too often it is. So what we've got to do is make no excuses for poor organization and just get better organized."
With more than 70 members, the progressives are the biggest single bloc within the 193-strong Democratic caucus in the House. Ellison is the sole Minnesota member. He said organizing starts by building deeper relationships with outside liberal groups.
"We're going to reach out to groups and say, 'What good research do you have that we can use on the House floor? Do you have meetings we can send our members to and explain what our strategy is? Or can you send some people to our meetings and tell us what you guys got in mind?'" he said.
Georgetown history professor Michael Kazin said the left's diverse coalition of labor groups, ethnic minorities and well-educated professionals is more difficult to organize than the Republican coalition of business owners and social conservatives.
"Often that means progressives unite more about what they don't want, that is conservative Republicans in power and setting the agenda for policy, than what they do want," Kazin said.
Kazin, who recently authored a book about the history of the American left, said that liberals also let their own institutions wither while conservatives were busy building their own.
That makes the task harder for Ellison and Grijalva. The pair have started using parliamentary tactics, such as offering scores of amendments, to slow floor proceedings in the House of Representatives and call attention to their preferred policy outcomes.
The Democrats' shellacking in last year's election has actually strengthened the progressives' voice in the House, said Bob Borosage, the co-chair of the Campaign for America's Future, which organized Wednesday's rally and works often with Ellison.
"In the minority they are freer to build their own position and to drive that position," Borosage said.
Groups such as Borosage's plan to spend heavily in next year's elections, including in primary campaigns where they'll be seeking more progressive candidates to oust Democrats who aren't liberal enough. Ellison said the more united and left-leaning House Democrats can become, the stronger President Barack Obama's hand will be when it comes to negotiating with Republicans.
"If those of us who are more liberal and progressive are pulling and fighting and arguing for what we believe in, the compromise will be done but it will be done much more equitably," he said.
Ellison and other Democrats insist they're not trying to create a tea party-type movement on the left. But Ellison said liberals are angry and he hopes to help channel that grassroots anger into results at the ballot box.