By David Wise
MILWAUKEE — Addressing the Wisconsin Democrats’ annual Founders Day Gala, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison urged party activists Saturday to start organizing now and to engage with voters in all areas of the state in order to win in 2018.
The Minnesota Democrat, who’s deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, drew applause when he said the party has to turn away from the old model of not campaigning in red states they may not win and in blue states they think they’ve already got.
“Get rid of that. That’s got to go,” he said. “You’ve got to campaign in the red and the blue and the purple — everywhere.”
Some Dems have faulted Hillary Clinton for not campaigning last fall in Wisconsin as Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since 1984.
Ellison said in Wisconsin, Dems need to “campaign hard in every single inch” of the state in order to at least keep vote totals close in red areas and run up the votes in blue areas of Madison and Milwaukee.
“We cannot afford to get blown out in the so-called red counties of Wisconsin,” Ellison said, adding later that “we can’t lose by 80 percent in the red counties then expect to make it up in the blue ones.”
He also said Dems need to begin engaging with voters and organizing now, and that they must focus on building ties in a community rather than just asking for votes.
“That transactional thing, where we only care about winning the vote, has got to shift into a new thing where we really are communicating through our deeds that we are committed to every Wisconsinite and every American,” Ellison said to applause.
While Ellison focused most of his speech on urging Dems to get engaged, he also criticized Trump and got in a shot at Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who’s being considered for an administration position.
In knocking Clarke, Ellison pointed to the case of a man who died in the county jail of dehydration a week after water was cut off to his cell.
“What a horrible person he is,” Ellison said. “I hope somebody does report I said he is a horrible person. He is a horrible person. This guy has people literally dying in confinement of lack of water.”
He continued, saying, “It’s not just Trump, it’s Trumpism. It’s all these little evil demons that crawl out of the woodwork at his command. It’s all the little bad people getting green-lighted because of him.”
Before the event, the state GOP knocked Ellison, calling him a radical leftist who has made inflammatory statements.
“Senator Tammy Baldwin and the Democratic Party owe Wisconsin voters an explanation: do they stand with the inflammatory statements and extreme liberal record of Keith Ellison or do they stand with Wisconsin voters?” said state GOP spokesman Alec Zimmerman. “Instead of fighting for hard-working families, Wisconsin Democrats are embracing a controversial radical-leftist and are moving their party even further to the fringe.”
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin noted during her speech that when she ran for office, she pledged to fight for affordable health care, to strengthen American manufacturing and to work for fair trade deals. She said Trump did the same.
“People in Washington often ask me how the same state could elect me in 2012 and vote for him in 2016,” she said. “The truth is simple. Folks here in Wisconsin are fed up with … watching Washington work for powerful interests instead of the middle class. And they want someone, anyone, to stand up for the little guy.”
But Baldwin, D-Madison, said she and Trump are “very different people.”
“For one thing, I haven’t just talked about these fights, I’ve spent my life talking them on,” she said to applause. “I don’t need Donald Trump to tell me to make buy America a top priority. I’ve been standing up for Wisconsin workers for years.”
Baldwin encouraged attendees to remain engaged, even though, like with exercise, the results may not seem immediate.
“We can’t afford to get complacent, and we can’t afford to get discouraged,” Baldwin said.
Among others speaking at the event were U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Town of Vermont, State Dem Party Chair Martha Laning and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.
Pocan called for Dems to be stronger and more aggressive in their messaging and to focus more on the economic issues that affect everyday Americans.
“We have to have those core economic issues at the very forefront if we’re going to get those voters to turn out,” Pocan said.
Laning said that while the November elections were “devastating,” Dems are forging ahead and focusing on grassroots organizing statewide.
“That election made us even more engaged,” said Laning, who is up for re-election at the state convention next month. “We are ready to fight.”