Democrats to determine leaders after disappointing election
House Democrats on Wednesday will launch the delicate affair of choosing their leadership team in the next Congress, a routine exercise that’s taken on outsize significance following the party’s battering at the polls two weeks ago.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her top lieutenants — Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) — are all running uncontested, setting the stage for the same power lineup to return for another term after 14 years together at the helm.
That grip on authority comes even despite some rank-and-file lobbying for a leadership facelift following a dismal election cycle when Democrats were forecasting large gains in the lower chamber, only to see their majority shrink instead.
The fifth-ranking House Democrat, Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), is also facing no challenger, guaranteeing a second term in that post for the four-term Brooklyn native. A quartet of Democrats are running uncontested to become the four equal co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC): Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) and Joe Neguse (D-Colo.).
Much less certain are a series of contests for a number of mid-ranking leadership positions — races that carry an unusual weight this year, since Pelosi has vowed to relinquish the gavel after the coming term. Her exodus is certain to spark a mad scramble to fill the void at the very top, and those just below would be best positioned to do so.
With that in mind, the races for the lower-tiered leadership posts have taken on a special urgency this week, when Democrats will vote virtually as a public health precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Pelosi created the assistant Speaker position two years ago to reward the campaign chief, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), for helping to flip the House to Democratic control. But the new post is now here to stay.
Two ambitious rising stars in the party — Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) — are vying to move up the leadership ladder and succeed Luján, who has proven that the assistant Speaker post can lead to higher office. Luján is heading to the Senate next year.
Clark, 57, the current Democratic Caucus vice chair, is a strong fundraiser who has been cultivating relationships with two critical voting blocs in the increasingly diverse caucus: women and minorities.
Her endorsements include former Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chair Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.); Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), a top Democratic National Committee official; Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas), who was an impeachment manager; and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who is a co-chair of both the Progressive Caucus and Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.
In touting Pocan’s support, Clark is taking direct aim at Cicilline, who as head of the DPCC is the only openly gay member on Pelosi’s leadership team. However, Cicilline, 59, won the endorsement of both the Human Rights Campaign and the LGBT Caucus, which said the former Providence mayor “understands personally the damage that Donald Trump has done — especially to young LGBTQ Americans — through his words and deeds.”
Some Democrats who aren’t taking sides in the race said it appeared Clark had a better whip operation and a strong case that another woman should serve at the top of the leadership team alongside Pelosi.
“The caucus is virtually half women so it’s tougher to say, ‘Nancy Pelosi, man, man, man, plus male head of the DCCC, and a male head of the caucus,” said one neutral House Democrat.
“There will be a lot of people who will want to make sure we have women at the top.”
With Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) dropping out so she can be considered for Interior secretary, the race for Democratic Caucus vice chair now pits Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) against Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.)
For at least the past decade, there has been a Hispanic member of the Democratic leadership team: Then-Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) had served as both caucus vice chair and chairman, while Luján was assistant Speaker and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chair. Aguilar, 41, a past whip for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), is looking to continue that tradition.
Kelly, 64, has been making the case that the key members of Pelosi’s leadership team should include a woman of color. In the top seven jobs, there currently are no women of color, and Kelly could make history as the first Black woman elected to leadership.
Both candidates are touting a broad array of support in the caucus. Aguilar, a centrist, is being backed by both the CHC and the pro-business New Democrat Coalition, where Aguilar serves as whip. Among his supporters are two CBC members, Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, and A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.); and progressive Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.).
This is Aguilar’s second attempt at the vice chair post; the former mayor of Redlands, Calif., was defeated two years ago by Clark and has been working to shore up support ever since.
Kelly, a former state lawmaker, has secured support from a majority of her fellow CBC members, who constitute a huge voting bloc in the caucus, a source close to Kelly said. She rolled out a list of endorsements Tuesday night, including a trio of leading progressives, Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.); as well as a pair of leaders of the New Democrats, Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) and Terri Sewell (D-Ala.).
Before the election, the big question was whether Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) would seek a second term leading the DCCC, the party’s campaign arm. But the devastating election results — nearly a dozen vulnerable Democratic incumbents have lost reelection so far — answered that question for her.
Bustos said she would step aside, creating a late unexpected opening in a critical leadership post. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who ran for the campaign job two years ago, quickly jumped in the race, followed by Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), who abandoned his uphill bid for assistant Speaker.
The election for DCCC chair has been postponed until the week after Thanksgiving to give Maloney and Cárdenas more time to campaign and lock down votes.
Both men are prolific fundraisers. Like Bustos, Maloney, 54, has touted his ability to win reelection in a conservative-leaning district that backed President Trump in 2016 — something he believes can help him defend vulnerable Democratic front-line members in what certainly will be an extremely difficult midterm election cycle for the party. He’s also talked about his unique background: He’s a married gay man who has an interracial family, and was the first openly LGBT person elected to Congress from New York.
Cárdenas, 57, has pointed to his six years leading BOLD PAC, the Hispanic Caucus’s super PAC that raised tens of millions of dollars for the party and helped boost the number of Hispanic members of Congress from 25 to 40. Colleagues see Cárdenas, a former Los Angeles City councilman and state lawmaker, as someone who could help Democrats make up lost ground with tens of thousands of Hispanic voters who backed Trump in places like the Rio Grande Valley along the Texas border and Miami-Dade County in south Florida.
All of the leadership votes will be cast by way of a new app allowing lawmakers to record their ballots both remotely, amid the pandemic, and covertly, to ensure anonymity.
The caucus tested the novel app on Tuesday during a caucus call, when lawmakers were asked to choose the greatest musician in history from a list of four: Selena, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen and U2’s Bono. Franklin, Jeffries reported, won with more than 50 percent of the vote.
“So the caucus provided R-E-S-P-E-C-T to the great Queen of Soul,” Jeffries quipped afterwards.
Votes for several contested committee leader seats have also been pushed to the week of Nov. 30.