Bucking tradition and battling the odds, the liberal stalwart Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) is making a play for a plum House energy post.
Grijalva, who is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), will challenge Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) for the top Democratic spot on the Natural Resources panel if Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the current ranking member, wins his Senate bid next month.
The winner would be the top Democratic voice on a panel that is a frequent platform for GOP attacks against White House energy and conservation policy.
DeFazio, another liberal firebrand, is next in line behind Markey and has already secured some key endorsements. But he has also been known to ruffle feathers in Democratic circles with his high-profile criticisms of both President Obama and his own party’s leadership.
Grijalva this week suggested DeFazio's sometimes-strained relationship with Democratic leaders will play a role in the Natural Resources race.
"It has to do with seniority [and] it has to do with what our caucus' agenda is – how we support that – and to some extent how we support leadership," Grijalva said Thursday.
"The third issue," he added, "is diversity."
Of those three "essentials," as Grijalva calls them, the Arizona Democrat thinks he takes the last two.
"Peter's big point is going to be, when you talk to him, seniority. And I think it's a composite," Grijalva said Thursday. "If, indeed, seniority had been the Holy Grail of how people get to ranking and chairmanship [seats], I wouldn't be barking up the tree."
DeFazio has a different take, arguing that the Democrats have a tradition of adhering to the seniority system in all but the most unusual cases.
"The Democratic Caucus, unlike the Republican Caucus, generally respects seniority unless there's an issue," DeFazio said Thursday. "In this case, no one has raised an issue about my performance."
DeFazio said he's been working for two months lobbying – successfully, he says – for support from members of the Steering and Policy Committee, which normally decides the committee positions.
"I've for some time had [the support of] a majority of members on Steering and Policy," DeFazio said. "It is very rare that someone appeals the Steering and Policy decisions … to the [full] Caucus, but it's possible."
Indeed, Grijalva intends to do just that. He said he held off lobbying fellow Democrats while Markey's primary race against Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) was ongoing – "I thought it was kind of tacky [to do otherwise]," he said – but has since taken his pitch to rank-and-file members in the likely event the Steering and Policy vote goes to DeFazio.
"If we find ourselves in that position, we're looking at a full Caucus vote," Grijalva said. "That's why I'm talking to everybody."
The committee’s jurisdiction over the Interior Department has made Natural Resources a platform for intense political collisions over oil-and-gas and mining policy.
Republicans have used the panel to slam what they call undue federal restrictions on development offshore and on vast swaths of public lands that Interior oversees in western states.
Both DeFazio and Grijalva are reliable liberal voices, but DeFazio has shown more willingness to buck Democratic leaders in high-profile debates.
Indeed, the irascible Oregonian led an unsuccessful push to postpone leadership votes after the Democrats' 2010 election drubbing – a move seen as giving disgruntled members more time to build a potential challenge to Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). He declined to support Pelosi's leadership bid in the 112th Congress. (This year, he voted for her).
On the policy side, DeFazio was at the front lines of the liberal criticism of Obama's 2009 stimulus bill, ultimately voting against it; he hammered Obama for extending all the Bush-era tax cuts in 2010; and he was among the most vocal Democratic opponents of the 2011 debt-ceiling deal, challenging Obama at one point to "act like a Democrat."
DeFazio on Thursday said his rebellious streak will not have an impact on the Natural Resources contest, saying, "I've got a lot of leadership support."
"It hasn't been a problem with any of the leaders I've talked to," he said, pointing specifically to his position on the stimulus bill. "They understand I opposed the stimulus because it didn't do significant transportation infrastructure investment."
Reinforcing that notion, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), one of Pelosi's closest allies, said this week that, while Grijalva's challenge is "quite proper" in a democracy, he is supporting DeFazio and the seniority system.
"We worked a lot of issues together for a long, long time,” Miller, who once chaired the Natural Resources panel, said of DeFazio.
Whether the contest will happen hinges on Markey's success in the June 25 special election to replace former-Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D), who stepped down in January to become secretary of State. A poll released Friday by the Emerson College Polling Society found Markey up by 12 points over Gabriel Gomez, the GOP candidate.
It is not the first time Grijalva has eyed the top seat on the Natural Resources panel, having challenged Markey unsuccessfully in 2009. This time around, he's hoping the politics swirling around the effort by both parties to attract Hispanic voters will play in his favor, and he's rallied the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) behind him.
“As Democrats, we rightly pride ourselves on our diversity and awareness of what it means to represent Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life,” CHC Chairman Ruben Hinojosa (D-Texas) wrote in a May 23 “Dear Colleague” letter urging Democrats to back Grijalva. “Few of our colleagues understand and embody that diversity and awareness as well as Raul.”
Grijalva says his emphasis on diversity is "not about the race card," but simply the politics of population change.
"If you're going to reach the new demographics in this country, and you're going to bridge the very critical environmental issues having to do with climate change, public lands, clean air [and] clean water with a new constituency…I think you need someone who can talk to everyone," he said Thursday. "And I think I'm in that position."
Grijalva has a steep climb ahead.
Aside from Miller's endorsement, DeFazio noted that he's already secured the support of the four Democrats ranking just below him on the Natural Resources panel: Reps. Eni Faleomavaega (A.S.), Frank Pallone (N.J.), Grace Napolitano (Calif.) and Rush Holt (N.J.).
Both Pallone and Holt this week cited the importance of preserving the seniority system in their decision.
“I am supporting Peter and I believe that Peter will win,” Pallone said Thursday. “I think seniority is very important. He is the most senior and I think we should respect that.”
DeFazio, for his part, seemed emboldened by such endorsements.
"I don't know of a time in history – [in the] recent history of the Caucus since the '74 reforms – that anybody has jumped six people to a ranking or a chair position," DeFazio said.
"I don't believe that's ever happened."