Junior Dems plot strategy as leadership vote looms

Junior Dems plot strategy as leadership vote looms
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Junior House Democrats are weighing their next moves ahead of Wednesday’s rare leadership vote, hoping for internal reforms while staying quiet on who’s best equipped to make them happen.

While Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) is challenging the 14-year command of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), most of the vocal young lawmakers who successfully delayed the leadership elections have withheld their endorsements in the race. 


The silence reflects the strategic dilemma facing the reform agitators, who are now mulling whether to back Ryan's bid or simply to push Pelosi, the heavy favorite in the race, for even more internal changes to empower younger members.

"This is a question of backward or forward," said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who is not yet backing a candidate, as Congress left Washington for the Thanksgiving recess. "There needs to be inclusion with the members who are going to be here for the next 10 years.” 

"I don't think we necessarily need to be in leadership, but we're the ones who are going to be inheriting whatever is done right now," he added. "We're the ones that have to actually fight for the future."

The contest marks unusual territory for Pelosi, whose only test since 2003 came in 2010, when she easily beat back a challenge from former Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) in a lopsided vote of 150 to 43.

Yet many lawmakers sense a different political environment this year after the Democrats, who expected to reap big gains from Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE's presidential bid, failed to meet their own widely held goals of winning the White House, taking control of the Senate and picking up a significant number of seats in the House. 

"This feels different," said one Democratic lawmaker, predicting that Ryan would attract more support than Shuler did, but not enough to oust Pelosi.  

Pelosi is leaving nothing to chance. She has been working the phones tirelessly behind the scenes to solidify support, and on Tuesday proposed a series of caucus reforms designed to empower junior members — a concession she didn't see the need for six years ago.

"She's going to win; I don't see anyone strong enough to beat her," a former Democratic leadership staffer said Wednesday. "[But] the fact that she's giving something must mean that even her staunch supporters were saying, 'You've got to do something.'"

Among the reforms, Pelosi has proposed to make the third-ranking leadership spot, currently held by 12-term Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), an elected position reserved for lawmakers who have served three terms or fewer. She also wants to carve out five regional vice-chairs of the Democrats' campaign arm.  

Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), a Pelosi supporter just elected to her third term, said those changes are "a good start" in addressing the concerns of junior members and sending a message to voters that the party is all-inclusive.

"The fact that she put forward these initial proposals and seems to want to have a further discussion with us when we get back to D.C. is a full recognition of that," Meng said Wednesday by phone.  

But Ryan has built his challenge around the notion that Pelosi and her current leadership team have simply failed to reach the working-class voters like those in his Youngstown, Ohio, district.  

Ryan spokesman Michael Zetts said Pelosi's reforms, along with similar changes Ryan proposed a few days earlier, would both "help make the Democratic Caucus better and more inclusive — but these are long term fixes."  

"Ultimately we need a change at the top if we are to effectively get our economic and progressive message straight to the voters," Zetts said in an email.

Other Democrats, while withholding their preferences in the leadership race, are also voicing strong frustrations with the Democrats' poor election showing, particularly in the Rust Belt states where Trump was victorious. 

"Obviously, we're getting wiped out in rural America," said Rep. Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindWisconsin Rep. Ron Kind wins primary Democrats exit briefing saying they fear elections under foreign threat Bottom line MORE (D-Wis.), chairman of the New Democrats, "and something needs to be done." 

A Democratic aide said Pelosi would have been more effective in quelling the internal outcry if she'd rolled out her proposals sooner.

"I do think she's feeling the squeeze," the aide said. "It's evident she had to go into crisis mode to make sure she wins reelection."

She's already getting plenty of support. A group of 50 female Democrats have circulated a letter touting Pelosi's experience as the best way to counter the incoming Trump administration. And some younger members, including Reps. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) and Derek KilmerDerek Christian KilmerOur national forests need protection — and Congress can help Democrats debate how and when to get House back in action Cornell to launch new bipartisan publication led by former Rep. Steve Israel MORE (D-Wash.) have joined the push. 

Many of the 27 freshman members also seem to be lining up behind the incumbent Democratic leader. 

"There is pressure, but it's easy for me because I love Nancy," said incoming Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.).

Pelosi has said she already has the race wrapped up, boasting the support of "more than two-thirds" as Ryan geared up to launch his bid.

But some Democrats say that claim was a mistake, setting a high bar for next week's election, which, if she fails to top it, could be seen as an erosion of power within a caucus that's rarely doubted her authority. 

"That was a tactical mistake," said the former leadership aide. "Before, she just had to win." 

Ryan, meanwhile, is rounding the cable news circuit and pitching colleagues behind the scenes. Meng said the Ohio Democrat is reaching out to all members with a text chain — "I guess it's going out to everyone unless you want to opt out," she said — outlining his reform plans and the reasons he's running. 

Part of that message is a vow to step down from leadership if the Democrats fail to win back the House in 2018. 

Ryan gained a handful of supporters in recent days, including Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), Marcia FudgeMarcia Louise FudgeHonoring John Lewis's voting rights legacy Teacher-centric is good, but student-centric is better The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Teachers' union President Randi Weingarten calls Trump administration plan to reopen schools 'a train wreck'; US surpasses 3 million COVID-19 cases MORE (D-Ohio), Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). But most of the caucus remains uncommitted ahead of the closed-ballot vote. And it remains unclear what strategy the restive junior Democrats who extended the elections — including Gallego and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) — will adopt when Congress returns to Washington on Tuesday.

"A lot is going to happen Tuesday night," Moulton's office said.