Keith Ellison floats impeaching Donald Trump during DNC debate

Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, one of the leading candidates to chair the Democratic National Committee, left open the possibility of pushing for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, in a break with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi just days ahead of the DNC election.

Ellison, who is locked in a competitive but largely amicable race with former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez for the reigns of the party, carved out the most aggressive anti-Trump posture during a debate among eight contenders Wednesday night broadcast on CNN.

"Donald Trump has already done a number of things which legitimately raise the question of impeachment," Ellison said.

Though he largely stressed themes meant to unite the party, Perez, the perceived front-runner for the chairmanship, did indicate he would not intervene in Democratic primaries -- a stand that most DNC candidates embraced as a result of the bad feelings surrounding the 2016 contest between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Many progressives believe that the DNC unfairly assisted Clinton in the primary by crafting the debate schedule in her favor and offering quiet strategic assistance to her campaign along the way.

"The role of the DNC chair is to let the process run its course," Perez said.

Ellison, who enjoys the backing of a swath of liberals, including Sanders, agreed to be a neutral arbiter, but cautioned against Republican-like infighting that led to a rash of exhaustive, expensive primaries during President Barack Obama's tenure.

"Let's not kill each other off," he warned.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Scott Buttigieg, a longshot candidate, presented himself as a younger leader from outside of Washington with fresh ideas who could appeal to Americans in the Midwest that abandoned Clinton for Trump in 2016.

"This idea that this is going to be a factional struggle between the Bernie wing and the establishment wing is missing the point. We've got to take it to the real opposition, which is the Republicans," he said. "We've got to look forward, not back. We're all in this together, that's got to be our message."

South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison stressed his time as a party chairman as key for a job that is largely about how to prioritize, organize and raise funds.

"We have to fight Republicans. We can't fight each other," he said.

It is irresistible for some activists and journalists to frame the race for DNC chair as a second act of the prolonged 2016 contest of Sanders versus Clinton -- with Ellison and Perez serving as respective symbolic stand-ins. But insiders who have worked at a party committee stress that the job is more about managerial prowess than message superiority or ideological purity.

"The people who are trying to make this symbolic between the left and the center or Hillary and Bernie are the people who need to stay away from this race. That's not what the party needs. That's creating false choices," says Mo Elleithee, a former DNC communications director. "What is going to help the party is someone who can build the party's infrastructure. It's the plug in the wall that everyone's going to get their power from."

So while much of the two-hour CNN debate in Atlanta nudged the candidates on questions of policy, from gun control to free trade, the reality is that the job of chair will ultimately be much more resigned to the mundane tasks of collecting cash, crafting a budget and hiring innovative people who can execute a revamped vision.

Whoever chairs the DNC will likely be playing second-fiddle on policy matters to Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and whoever inches into the national spotlight over time. What the chair does is akin to a mechanic, focusing on nuts and bolts.

An unofficial vote count of DNC members by the Associated Press taken prior to the debate had Perez at 205 votes to Ellison's 153. Lagging in third place was Harrison with 27 votes. The 447-member committee decides its next chair on Saturday in Atlanta.

For their parts, Perez and Ellison appeared to want to move beyond the Clinton-Sanders schism publicly and instead convey a dedication to reforming a DNC that is reeling from poor morale and institutional neglect.

"The DNC's a black hole and we have a crisis of confidence because it is," Perez said.

Perez, whose voice was hoarse from holding events in 10 states over the last five days, said he would prioritize millennial engagement and put money behind it as a long-term investment. He also suggested triggering a discussion among members over whether the party should continue to accept money from lobbyists and corporations, an idea that could hamstring fundraising efforts.

Ellison unveiled a 100-day plan late Wednesday that includes holding organizing sessions in all 57 states and territories and mobilizing a summer canvas effort that would knock on doors throughout the country. Given that only six states have both Democratic governors and control of state legislatures, down-ballot races would garner a higher priority.

"We have got to win up and down the ballot from the dog catcher all the way up," Ellison said.

Last week, Ellison and Perez were spotted sharing dinner in Washington, raising the specter that they cut some sort of deal no matter the outcome of the race.

Ellison denied any deal-making, but said affectionately of his opponent, "If I win I can count on Tom and if Tom wins, Tom can count on me."

Perez chimed in saying, "A unified party is not only our best hope, it's Donald Trump's worst nightmare."

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