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No Shortage of Competition

Challenging Pelosi for leadership in the House

A week after recapturing the majority, Democrats have a healthy competition for key leadership positions among a younger generation of House members. That election also quashed the major premise of malcontents insisting on the replacement of Nancy Pelosi as speaker: Democrats won despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent by Republicans in hopes of enticing Democrats to pick a less effective leader.

Despite the breadth of the Democratic wave — the largest number of seats won since the post-Watergate “Class of ’74” — a small number of nay-sayers continue to oppose Pelosi. Lacking substantive disagreement on policy and, as of this writing, any qualified opponent (actually, no candidate at all), critics are left with one argument: Democrats need “new leaders.” Even some Pelosi sympathizers complain that she has not groomed her successor in order to provide a smooth transition.

Let’s be clear: Nancy Pelosi does not have the ability — or the right, for that matter — to select the next generation of Democratic leaders. Legislators make up their own minds about running for leadership positions, sometimes without past experience on the so-called “leadership ladder” just as Pelosi herself did in 2002. The notion that Pelosi has somehow failed to construct a clear line of succession fundamentally misconstrues the nature of the leadership selection process.

But as it turns out, just such a healthy competition for “next-gen” leaders has emerged for multiple leadership positions, roles that will give newer members the experience they must have before being elevated to the very senior positions. Why not celebrate that competition instead of echoing Republican criticisms of Pelosi in hopes of dividing the victorious majority?

Two challengers have emerged to contest Jim Clyburn’s candidacy to regain the Whip position he held in 2007-2010. Clyburn, the highest-ranking black member in the House, was just re-elected to his 16th term. Diana DeGette (CO), just elected to her 14th term who serves as a chief deputy whip (and who had considered running against Clyburn in 2006) is jumping into the race, as is third termer Filemón Vela (TX), a Blue Dog moderate who once resigned in protest from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC).

There will also be a competitive race for Assistant Leader, a role Pelosi created in 2010 to keep Clyburn at the leadership table after Democrats lost the House. Contenders include the highly successful chairman of the campaign committee, Ben Ray Lujan (NM) and messaging co-chair David Cicilline (RI).

The contest for Caucus Chair, a position that generally serves to elevate its occupant to higher leadership slots (Tom Foley, Steny Hoyer, Dick Gephardt, Bill Gray, among others) will include two members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Barbara Lee (CA) narrowly lost the vice chair position in 2016 to Linda Sanchez, who recently withdrew from the race for chair. Challenging Lee is 4 term Hakeem Jeffries (NY), a rising star who doubtless will argue that he represents a new generation of leadership compared to the 11-term Lee.

There is also a competition for Caucus Vice Chair that includes 4th term Katherine Clark (MA), who gained prominence in her role recruiting viable candidates for 2018 (many of whom will be voting on this position as new members). Also running is third term Pete Aguilar (CA), who is also a member of the party and CHC whip organizations.

The race to chair the Democrats’ campaign committee will involve at least four younger members. The DCCC role has been a path to the leadership and higher office for a number of recent occupants including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Chris Van Hollen. Those currently in the race include Suzan DelBene (WA), just elected to her fifth term, and four termers Denny Heck (WA), Cheri Bustos (IL) and Sean Patrick Maloney (NY). The race for DCCC communications chair is similar crowded with John Garamendi (CA) with 6 terms, and others with four terms or fewer, including Matt Cartwright (PA) (4), Debbie Dingell (MI) and Ted Lieu of CA (3), and NY’s Adriano Espaillat (2).

There is also the position created by Pelosi to ensure a junior member with 5 terms or less sits the leadership circle. Seeking that slot are three rising talents in the party, Jamie Raskin (MD), Terri Sewell (AL), and Tony Càrdenas (CA).

By any stretch, that is a lot of healthy competition among newer members for a succession of leadership positions. And it should be noted that these prospective leaders are distinguished not only by their length of service, but by their diversity, including women, LGBTQ, black, Asian-American and Latino members. And one more important distinguishing characteristic: these aspirants are marked by their service on key committees (Appropriations, Commerce, Judiciary) and their serious legislative and leadership contributions, not mainly for their gratuitous criticism of party’s leaders.

The victory on November 6th and this cohort of qualified aspirants should put to rest complaints and second-guessing about how the party should move forward when the Caucus meets to elect its leaders later this month. Experience and unity are required to fulfill promises to voters and to confront the coming assault from Trump and Senate leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats require a strong leadership not simply to withstand that challenge, but to move their agenda forward. Fortunately, it looks like that’s exactly the kind of leadership team the Caucus will have the opportunity to select.

John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center, worked for 38 years in the House of Representatives, the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker/Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. This post was originally published on John’s blog, Domeocracy.

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