Howard Dean took himself out of the race to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee on Friday, while the frontrunner in the contest, Rep. Keith Ellison, said he may leave his Minnesota congressional seat to serve in the position.
The two dramatic announcements came during the first public forum in the race to lead the DNC after Democrats lost the White House in November's election. Ellison, a supporter of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary, has the backing of much of the party's liberal wing and that of incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Ellison is one of two Muslim members of Congress. Critics have zeroed in on some of his past statements about Israel and questioned whether he could do the grueling DNC job while serving in the House.
At a forum Friday before state party chairs in Denver, Ellison said he thought some prior DNC chairs who were elected officials had done well but that he's heard concerns about the need to do it as his sole job.
"Though I love being in Congress because it allows me to serve my neighbors, I do think that it is more important to build, strengthen the DNC," Ellison said, adding that he'll continue to think about whether to stay in the House.
Dean, who was previously elected DNC chair after his unsuccessful 2004 bid for the party's presidential nomination, announced he'd run again for the position days after last month's election, in which Democrat Hillary Clinton lost to Republican Donald Trump. He made his surprise announcement of withdrawal from the contest in a videotaped message to the Denver meeting of Democratic state party chairs.
"I am not going to be a candidate for the Democratic National Committee chairmanship," Dean said near the conclusion of his five-minute video, after talking about how the position is a full-time job. "I have other priorities; I have a grandchild now."
The former Vermont governor warned that the race shouldn't become a proxy fight between supporters of Clinton and those of her primary opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But he also acknowledged it could be divisive and pledged to support the winner.
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The Democrats met after their dispiriting showing on Election Day, when they lost the White House and only made small gains in the House and Senate. Next year, Republicans will have a monopoly in Washington, including majorities in Congress.
Ellison and the two other remaining candidates said they wanted to focus on rebuilding state parties after historic losses in governor's races and statehouses, as well as the presidential defeat. "We must become a community organization, working in our neighborhoods with grassroots activists," said South Carolina party chairman Jaime Harrison.
The third candidate, New Hampshire party chairman Ray Buckley, touted his neutrality and fairness, noting that he helped Sanders register for his state primary even when some local Clinton supporters tried to remove him from the primary ticket. He also touted how his party has won repeatedly in a state that previously was thought of as solidly Republican.
"My life is about electing Democrats," Buckley said.
The party will select a new chair in February.