House

Dem generation gap widens

Some septuagenarian House Democrats have a message for their younger colleagues clamoring for a spot at the leadership table: Age ain't nothin' but a number.

Democrats in their 70s have started pushing back against some of the more youthful members of the House Democratic Caucus who are making noise about launching leadership bids in the wake of caucus Chairman Joe Crowley's stunning primary loss last week to 28-year-old democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York.

Older lawmakers argue that just because House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), 78, and her top lieutenants are getting up there in years doesn't mean they're not progressive or effective. Instead, they say it's their decades of experience fighting in the trenches on a range of issues - from the gender pay gap and gun control to LGBT rights - that make them the right ones to lead the fight against President Trump and the Republicans.

"If we get back the House, Nancy Pelosi deserves to be the speaker," said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), a Pelosi ally. "She is leading this effort to get these candidates elected. She is barnstorming the country. She is helping to fashion the message."

Frankel, who turned 70 in May, noted that septuagenarians of all stripes are some of the most popular politicians in the country today: former Vice President Joe Biden, 75; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), 76; and President Trump, who is 72.

"This should not be a generational fight at all," Frankel added. "And people who want to make it into a generational fight are, quite frankly, people who don't like seniority because they want power."

Because House Democrats' top three leaders - Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), 79, and Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (S.C.), 77 - have held a firm grip on power in the caucus for more than a decade, it's created a bottleneck for other ambitious senior members looking to rise through the ranks.

Seasoned veterans have been waiting patiently in line, so the leadership scramble triggered by the defeat of Crowley, 56, last week has many of them now raising their hand and saying they are ready to lead, while some of their younger colleagues also vie for power.

One of those veteran lawmakers is Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), 71, a former chair of both the Congressional Black Caucus and Progressive Caucus who represents a district across the San Francisco Bay from Pelosi's. Lee made waves in 2001 when she became the only member of Congress to vote against granting President George W. Bush authorization to use military force after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Lee is exploring a bid for Crowley's No. 4 leadership post and has spent the past few days reaching out to colleagues to gauge support, even as she makes clear that the "first priority" is winning back the House in the November midterm elections.

"I think I can bring a lot to the caucus, but I'm talking to members to make an assessment as to what direction they would want a caucus chair to go in and what the agenda should be, and if they think I can represent their interest," Lee told reporters. "I'm a coalition builder, a unifier. And even as a progressive ... I never challenge people on their views and hit below the belt. If people don't agree with me - that's fine. This is a democracy."

After Democrats' disastrous 2016 performance, Pelosi faced an insurgent challenge from Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio), who's now 44, for the top Democratic leadership post. Pelosi prevailed, but Ryan notched 63 votes in the secret-ballot election, underscoring the frustration many in the caucus felt about the existing, entrenched leadership structure.

To quell the internal revolt, Pelosi expanded her leadership team to include several more slots that could be filled by more junior Democrats. Three relative newcomers - Reps. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), 56; David Cicilline (R.I.), 56; and Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), 47 - were elected to head the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

Additionally, Pelosi appointed 37-year-old Rep. Eric Swalwell, a close ally and fellow Bay Area lawmaker, as one of two leaders of House Democrats' Steering and Policy Committee.

With Crowley's loss to a millennial upstart, many of those new additions to leadership are looking to climb the final rungs of the ladder.

Bustos, Cicilline, Jeffries and Swalwell have all been approached by colleagues about running for other leadership spots after the midterms, as have others like Rep. Grace Meng (N.Y.), 42, a top Democratic National Committee official; Reps. Joe Kennedy III, 37, and Seth Moulton, 39, both from Massachusetts; and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), a former civil rights activist who was among 600 people arrested Thursday at the Capitol during protests against Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy.

"It's the Wild West," one senior Democratic aide said of the coming fall leadership races.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Ro Khanna (D), another Bay Area liberal who endorsed both Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez in the New York primary, has been perhaps the most explicit about the need for generational change in the Democratic Party. 

The 41-year-old lawmaker told The Hill that Democrats have to find a way to include "talented," young progressives like House candidates Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib in Michigan and Brent Welder in Kansas.

"They know how to inspire," Khanna said, noting that they're organizers both online and in their communities. "The new generation is going to lead us to a fairer and freer America, fulfilling FDR and Martin Luther King's vision."

Progressive Caucus co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), 70, said the generational fight has already arrived in his party. He said he's more concerned that the people who end up replacing Pelosi and her team in the future hail from the liberal wing of the party rather than the center.

"Robert F. Kennedy once said youth is not about time; it's about the mind," said Grijalva, who has served with Pelosi in the House for the past 15 years. "And I think you should judge people by their record. You need to judge people by where they stand on the issues that are important right now." 

"I want someone who's going to stand for where this party is heading in the future, not necessarily concerned about a career move," he said.

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