On Friday, Howard Dean took himself out of the race to lead the Democratic National Committee (DNC), saying that he would not have the time to dedicate to the job.
Mr. Dean’s exit leaves Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison the frontrunner in the race. But he's now defending himself against criticism that he could not adequately perform the job of DNC chairman while remaining in the House of Representatives.
“I am in the process of deciding this issue of whether I can perform both roles,” Mr. Ellison said Friday at a meeting between candidates for the DNC chair in Denver. “It has become very apparent that many of you feel very strongly about this. I’ve loved being in Congress….but I do think that it is more important to build and strengthen the DNC.”
While elected officials have chaired the DNC in the past, but many Democrats, including some in the Obama administration, have expressed concerns that leading the party against Donald Trump will be a full-time job.
Ellison’s position as the first Muslim elected to Congress puts him in a symbolically powerful place to oppose Trump. However, Ellison's past comments critical of US foreign policy regarding Israel may have weakened his prospects for the DNC post – as it did in his 2006 run for Congress.
"New information recently has come to light that raises serious concerns about whether Rep. Ellison faithfully could represent the Democratic Party's traditional support for a strong and secure Israel,” the Anti-Defamation League wrote, referring to editorials written by Ellison for his college newspaper.
Ellison responded via open letter on Thursday, stating that he was committed to Israel’s safety and security, and supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ellison was an early favorite for the DNC job, winning endorsements from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and newly appointed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both of whom support a more populist position for the Democratic Party. This made Ellison a natural choice over Dean, who has served as DNC chair before, and was an early supporter of Hillary Clinton.
But Dean's departure, Ellison has two remaining opponents: South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison and New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman Ray Buckley, both of whom agree that the future of the DNC should focus on rebuilding the state parties after numerous congressional and gubernatorial losses in the November elections.
“We must become a community organization, working in our neighborhoods with grassroots activists,” said Mr. Harrison.
Mr. Buckley suggested an entirely different form of leadership in which he takes on the nuts and bolts of running the party while Ellison or Harrison works as the public face of the party. Dean had also called for a new leadership strategy, the “50 state strategy” he championed as chairman in 2004 through 2008.
While Dean's approach proved popular among state party chairs, it did not resonate with the younger Democrats, a key constituency at a time when many party official say that it needs a younger face and new approach in order to survive going forward.
Dean warned against letting the DNC chair race reopen the ideological party divisions exposed in the primaries.
“We cannot let this be a proxy fight” between Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters,” Mr. Dean, who was himself a strong Clinton backer, said in a video message announcing his withdrawal. “We have to get rid of this idea that there is a Bernie Democrat or a Hillary Democrat or an Obama Democrat.”
The DNC chair will be decided in February, when the more than 400 members of the DNC meet to vote on who will lead the party during Trump’s presidency.