Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

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Rep. Peggy Flanagan’s Twitter profile picture. She represents Minnesota’s District 46A and could soon be a candidate for Congress.

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

Sometimes the stars do align. The short version: Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison is campaigning to chair the Democratic National Committee. If he wins, that opens up a congressional seat in a special election. And, state Rep. Peggy Flanagan is thinking about running.

Now, the details.  Ellison represents Minneapolis and some of the suburbs, including St. Louis Park and, as he puts it in his biography, is “one of the most vibrant and ethnically diverse districts in Minnesota.” He’s often a leader of the  Congressional Progressive Caucus for the 113th Congress and is often a voice for justice on issues ranging from financial services to Standing Rock.

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Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota.

Ellison wrote last week on Facebook:

“After months of protests, I’m inspired by this victory by thousands of indigenous activists and Water Protectors, and millions of Americans who support them. This is a victory for all people who fight for social justice. And it is a victory won by the power of peaceful protest – a reminder of what people can do when they stand up and organize.

We use environmental impact statements to understand how key projects will impact our environment and communities. I hope that Energy Transfer Partners, and most importantly, the next Administration, recognize the concerns raised by the Standing Rock Tribe.

I also want to acknowledge that the responsibility for this project falls on the Energy Transfer board room, not the workers who are simply trying to do their jobs. Working Americans need our support as well. That’s why I support a broad infrastructure package that creates good jobs for millions of American workers.

We have a responsibility to respect the sovereignty of the Standing Rock Tribe, and to ensure their voices are heard. And we must ensure that the millions of people who depend on the Missouri and Cannonball rivers have access to clean water. As the Water Protectors at Standing Rock remind us every day: Water Is Life.”

This is not exactly the message we have been hearing from the Democratic National Committee. Instead, since the summer, when the presidential campaign was at its height, we heard statements about protecting peaceful protest and workers (without a definition of what was meant).  The Democratic Party has been trying to represent corporate patrons (including those who build and fund pipelines) as well as some of its core constituent groups. That no longer works. If it ever did. In this age of social media and transparency, the people are demanding more accountability and a clear sense of direction about social justice.

And that’s the basis of Ellison’s campaign, building a party that champions grass roots efforts. He said last week: “The Democratic Party must be the party that delivers for working people. We can do that by meeting folks where they are, looking them in the eye, treating them with respect, and working to solve their problems. For me, that means a chair with only one full time commitment.”

So that means Ellison (unlike former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz) would give up his congressinal seat. “I have decided to resign as a member of Congress if I win the election for DNC chair. Whoever wins the DNC chair race faces a lot of work, travel, planning and resource raising. I will be ‘all-in’ to meet the challenge.”

Ellison was a strong candidate before his announcement last week. But since then he is earning more endorsements from elected Democrats. According to Politico, supporters now include: Reps. John Lewis, Raul Grijalva, Luis Gutierrez and Tulsi Gabbard, a former DNC vice chair, as well as Sens. Martin Heinrich, Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, Elizabeth Warren, and on Thursday, the AFL-CIO also announced its endorsement.

The election of the DNC chair will happen at the party’s winter meeting, sometime before March 2017. There are at least two other candidates:  Raymond Buckley, a NH party leader, and Jaime Harrison, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. There are other potential candidates as well, including Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

And that’s the stage setting a Peggy Flanagan run for Congress.

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Flanagan’s entry into the race would be historic. She’s a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and she would be the first American Indian woman ever elected to Congress. That sentence is in itself remarkable when you think about this country’s history and the contributions from so many Native women. Montana and Arizona could, should, have broken that barrier in 2016 by electing Denise Juneau and Victoria Steele. But the geography and the timing weren’t there. Sometimes elections require a bit more, well, luck.

And Minnesota’s fifth congressional district could be the spot. As Ellison’s biography says, it’s one of the most vibrant and ethnically diverse districts in Minnesota. This is a place where voters would appreciate, even celebrate, the historical significance of this first. After all this is a state that just elected four Native women to its Legislature. Another record.

Flanagan also has the ideal background for this job. She’s been an organizer working on social justice issues for more than a decade. More than that: She teaches other people how to win campaigns and elections for Wellstone Action and The Management Center (an organization working for social change). She was executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-Minnesota.

And, if that’s not enough, she knows how to win a special election. She was elected to the Minnesota House in 2015 when Rep. Ryan Winkler moved out of the country. She jumped into the race early, ran unopposed, and earned 96.4 percent of the vote.

It’s not likely that Flanagan will run unopposed for a congressional seat. But she is already getting early support on social media. (Hashtag: #RunPeggyRun.)

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak Jr. posted this on Twitter: “Wow! It would be great to have one of the best young leaders in the country be my rep in Congress.” He’s not alone. Others have expressed their fondness for Ellison and then say Flanagan is the right candidate to build on that legacy.

In politics timing is everything. Sometimes the stars do align.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please credit: Mark Trahant / TrahantReports.com

 

 

 

 

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