Midwest Dems feel left out in cold

Midwest Dems feel left out in cold
© Greg Nash

So much for regional diversity.

House Democrats are in the midst of a post-election leadership expansion designed largely to amplify the voices of lawmakers in the heartland, where voters flocked to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE and propped up vulnerable Republicans down the ballot.

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But after a series of votes and appointments during the past few days, the party’s leadership structure remains tilted strongly in favor of the coasts, sparking criticism from Midwestern Democrats who feel their voices are too often ignored.

“There is an unintentional tendency for a coastal bias,” said Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D), a former head of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).

Cleaver lamented that the Democratic leadership structure is careful to be inclusive when it comes to other factors, like gender, race and sexual orientation, but not when it comes to lawmakers’ home states.

“We’re not as intentional when it comes to geography,” he said. “That’s a big mistake. The election was lost in the very area that we just ignored in the leadership assembly.”

Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz (D) delivered a similar message, warning that the Democrats simply can’t win back the lower chamber without picking up swing districts in the Midwest. 

Having more of those lawmakers steering the party’s decisionmaking, he said, would go a long way toward helping the party better communicate with those voters.  

“The purpose is not just to have someone from the Midwest on leadership. The purpose is to have a voice on there to articulate how we win in these areas,” he said. “It’s not just misplaced pride of being a Midwesterner; it’s an absolute electoral reality that if you don’t pass through districts like mine and others, you never can get to 218 [seats]. It’s just structurally impossible.”

Walz, like other critics of the leadership structure, was quick to note that because Democrats overall are concentrated on the coasts, elections to decide leadership spots will inevitably favor those regions. He also acknowledged the inherent unfairness of having any region represented disproportionately.

“It’s a conundrum we’re in,” Walz said. “There’s nobody left from the Midwest, yet we want to make sure that we’re articulating that vision of how those people are winning.”

The debate over Democrats’ leadership structure has raged since the elections, when the party’s widely held expectations of making big gains were dashed by President-elect Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans, who will control the White House and both chambers of Congress next year.

The election results prompted a rare challenge to the authority of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has led her party in the House for 14 years. Although Pelosi easily fended off Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan’s bid, his warning that it’s political suicide for the party to ignore “flyover country” has resonated with many lawmakers in the nation’s interior. 

Pelosi accepted a rules change that specifically aims for regional balance, creating five co-chairs for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Those positions have not been filled, because the regions are not yet defined.

Pelosi also responded by adding a number of leadership posts — some reserved for junior members — and adopting rules to select those positions by a vote of the full caucus, rather than an appointment from the top.  

After several rounds of votes and appointments, however, only four of the top 15 leadership spots are occupied by lawmakers who aren’t in coastal states, and only one of those — Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosHouse Democratic campaign arm raises .4 million in third quarter Pelosi tells Democrats to focus on Constitution, not Trump GOP ratchets up 2020 attacks as impeachment storm grows MORE (D-Ill.) — is from the Midwest.

Indeed, the caucus voted early Tuesday to put Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and David Cicilline (R.I.) atop the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC), for which Bustos is the third co-chairwoman. 

Hours before, they selected California Rep. Tony Cardenas to fill a new post reserved for members serving five terms or fewer. 

Amid the voting, the Democrats passed over several interior-state lawmakers, including Reps. Debbie Dingell (Mich.) and Steve Cohen (Tenn.). Rep. Matt Cartwright (Pa.) was also defeated in his bid for the DPCC. 

Pelosi and her top deputies — Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.) and James Clyburn (S.C.) — are all from the coasts, as is Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), who will serve as the caucus chairman next year. 

Pelosi, for her part, seems to recognize the tension and has taken steps to promote heartland lawmakers in recent days.

She’s given a leadership spot to Rep. Filemon Vela (Texas), a Blue Dog Democrat, and on Tuesday, a day after Cartwright’s narrow defeat, she appointed him to the Steering and Policy panel.

A number of middle-of-the-country lawmakers are cheering the leadership expansion, saying the regional considerations are overblown. 

“One member said, ‘Well, there’s too many people from the West Coast,’ ” Rep. Gene GreenRaymond (Gene) Eugene GreenTexas New Members 2019 Two Democrats become first Texas Latinas to serve in Congress Latina Leaders to Watch 2018 MORE (D-Texas) said Tuesday. “I said, ‘Well, the end-all-be-all is not geography, it’s also the person.’ And I think that’s what we saw.”

Rep. Dave Loebsack (D-­Iowa) said the changes mark “a good start.”

“We’ve just got to continue to work on the party itself and make sure at the national level the party understands the concerns of us in the broad expanse of the rest of the country,” he said.

Bustos is also defending the leadership structure despite being the lone Midwestern voice.

“I’m the only Midwesterner, but we have good representation from the [Congressional Hispanic Caucus], from the CBC; we have women, we have men,” she said. “Anybody has an opportunity to take these positions; it just depends on what they put into it. So I think we’ll be OK.”

But for others, the leadership team retains too much power for the coasts at the expense of other regions. 

“The math of membership at this point is not with diversity. … The Midwest and the South are missing,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio). “We have to provide more space for these other regions that do not have footing, and we have to create platforms for them.”

Cleaver is vowing to get vocal in his advocacy for more regional representation. To win a greater voice, Cleaver said, “means that those of us in the Midwest are going to have to become obnoxious.”

“I am now an advocate of ‘obnoxious-tivity.’ That’s not a word, but it’s going to be a new word in this movement,” he said. “We’re not helping the Democratic Party if those of us in the Midwest continue to remain silent.”