House

Crowley stunner sets off new scramble among House Dems

Rep. Joseph Crowley's stunning defeat in his primary has created an unexpected opening for a younger, more progressive candidate to challenge the old bulls of House Democratic leadership - Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Steny Hoyer  (Md.) and Jim Clyburn (S.C.) - who are all in their late 70s.

Crowley, the New York Democrat who holds the No. 4 leadership spot, was seen as the next possible Democratic Speaker. But his loss to 28-year-old progressive upstart Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday night shook Washington and shined the spotlight back on rank-and-file Democrats' desire to see a generational change at the top.

By Wednesday, the dust had not settled, and it was still unclear what exactly Crowley's defeat would mean for the broader 193-member caucus. But in the hours after Ocasio-Cortez's surprise victory, hundreds of conversations had taken place over text message, email and phone, with lawmakers floating more than a dozen names of colleagues who could run for leadership.

"It's wide open," freshman Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), 44, told The Hill. "Joe Crowley was seen as a friend of many different [constituencies] and advocacy caucuses and now there is a lot of room to fill and a lot of people are thinking about it."

Some younger members being floated for a top leadership spot include members of Pelosi's own leadership team: House Democrats' campaign chief, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.); caucus Vice Chairwoman Linda Sánchez (Calif.), who previously led the Hispanic Caucus; Rep. Eric Swalwell (Calif.), co-chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee; and Reps. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) and David Cicilline (R.I.), who jointly lead the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the caucus's messaging arm.

Two Pelosi critics, Reps. Seth Moulton (Mass.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio), are other names being tossed around. Pelosi beat back an insurgent challenge from Ryan in 2016.

And members of the Progressive Caucus who've been encouraged to run include co-Chairman Mark Pocan (Wis.) and Reps. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), Jamie Raskin (Md.) and Joe Kennedy III, (Mass.) as well Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.), who endorsed both Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez in the New York race.

Khanna, a former Obama administration official who represents a San Francisco Bay-area district near Pelosi's, is being urged to run by progressive voices like "The Young Turks" founder Cenk Uygur. While Khanna, 41, declined to comment about a possible bid, he said the message from Ocasio-Cortez's victory is clear: Democratic leaders going forward must embrace a more progressive agenda.

"It's a clarion call for bold, progressive leadership and having an agenda of 'Medicare for all,' free public college, against police brutality, having a clear vision and conviction-based politics," Khanna told The Hill. "Grass-roots organizing and inspiring people is far more important than just fundraising. The energy of this party is with organizing, with momentum, with social media. The tools of winning elections have changed, and conviction-driven politics can inspire."

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), 38, said Ocasio-Cortez's triumph over Crowley represented a demographic and generational change happening in the Democratic Party.

"I think you are seeing a lot more progressive, younger people coming out and voting in primaries because they are feeling the brunt of the Trump administration's actions, especially people of color," Gallego said. "I think you saw that [Tuesday] - a young, Latina progressive was basically able to [drive] out the people in the district, which is young, Latino and progressive.

"I think that's where the Democratic Party is."

However, Democratic leaders downplayed the implications of Ocasio-Cortez's victory for the party's leadership and positions nationally, even as they congratulated her on her win.

Hoyer, who serves as minority whip, told reporters in his office Wednesday that Ocasio-Cortez's viral TV ad was extremely powerful, but added: "I don't want to get into leadership questions."

And Pelosi, the San Francisco liberal who made history as the first female Speaker of the House, pushed back on a question about whether her leadership team should better reflect her party: more female, progressive and young. 

"I'm female. I'm progressive. What's your problem? Two out of three ain't bad," quipped Pelosi, a grandmother of nine. "They made a choice in one district. So let's not get yourself carried away as an expert on demographics and the rest of that within the caucus or outside the caucus."

A senior Democratic aide added that "Pelosi has made clear that she's staying put."

Yet the victory of Ocasio-Cortez, the daughter of Puerto Rican parents and a former organizer for Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential campaign, could complicate the path for Pelosi to return to the Speakership, and for Hoyer and Clyburn to ever move up the ladder.

"It's definitely time for younger people to rise up," said one House Democrat reacting to the Crowley political earthquake.

Ocasio-Cortez on Wednesday declined to back Pelosi for Speaker should Democrats regain control of the House in November.

"I think it's far too early to make those kinds of commitments right now," Ocasio-Cortez told CNN's "Newsroom," saying Democrats "need to just focus on winning in November first and then we'll have the conversation about our leadership."

Crowley, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus who was first elected to his Queens seat two decades ago, was seen as the last survivor of a new generation of House lawmakers who could not climb higher because of the entrenched leadership of Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn.

Former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) left the House in 2010 to become President Obama's chief of staff, then successfully ran for Chicago mayor. And two others who held the DCCC post moved on as well: Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) retired in 2017, while Rep. Chris Van Hollen won a Senate seat representing Maryland.

Crowley's predecessor as caucus chairman, former Rep. Xavier Becerra, left the House last year to become California's attorney general.

Bustos, a moderate Democrat who represents northwest Illinois, urged reporters not to read too much into the New York race, describing it as "unique." But she confirmed that colleagues have reached out to her Wednesday about a possible leadership bid.

"I had some people who have contacted me. I tell them this is about 12 hours old right now and we'll talk," said Bustos, 56, a former journalist from the Quad Cities area. "People are just seeing our fourth-highest-ranking person in leadership lose his primary and that leads to a lot of questions about what comes next."

"I've said that I'm very, very proud of our caucus because we value diversity in every way. One area where we haven't valued it to the level I'd like to see is geographic diversity," Bustos added. "I sit around the leadership table now and am the only Midwesterner. I'm the only person who sits around that table who comes from a district that Donald Trump won.

"And I think that's very, very important to understand those kinds of districts."

- Sylvan Lane contributed

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