Policy

House Democratic Leadership Talk Starts Moving Into the Open

Lee, Sánchez could face off again, this time for caucus chairmanship

California Rep. Barbara Lee is among the House Democrats looking to fill an upcoming leadership vacancy left by New York Rep. Joseph Crowley who lost his primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats have largely tried to avoid talking about potential leadership battles in an effort to focus on winning the majority in November, but an unexpected opening is making that more difficult.

When New York Rep. Joseph Crowley lost his primary June 26, it created a guaranteed opening for the caucus chairmanship in the next Congress. It’s the only leadership slot where the current officeholder won’t be able to run in intraparty elections in late November or early December.

Winning back the House and speaker’s gavel would open an extra Democratic leadership position above the caucus chairmanship. And party members say it could get messy, especially if someone mounts a challenge to one of the top three leaders.

But with no guarantees in November, some Democrats are showing early public interest in the only leadership slot that is certain to be open.

California Reps. Linda T. Sánchez and Barbara Lee both signaled they may run for caucus chairwoman, potentially setting up a rung-up rematch of their 2016 battle for caucus vice chairwoman. Sánchez won that race by just two votes.

Lee said she’s been discussing her interest with colleagues and gathering feedback on their vision for the caucus, but she doesn’t have a timeline for making an official decision on running.

“I don’t want to make any decisions unless it seems like I could win,” she said in an interview that her office initiated with Roll Call.

ICYMI: Which Incumbents Could Follow in Crowley’s Footsteps?

Crucial month

Before the Crowley loss, Democrats could pretend these conversations weren’t taking place, but with an opening now present, backroom conversations are moving into the open.

Sánchez told reporters she would make a good caucus chairwoman, but said she wasn’t making any announcement yet either. 

While the two are so far the only candidates to publicly express interest, Lee doesn’t connect this opportunity to their previous race. 

“This is a different election, a different time,” she said.

The exact field for the race likely won’t be clear for months, but July will be a crucial time for Sánchez, Lee and other potential leadership candidates to begin to build coalitions of members willing to support their ambitions.

“Anybody who’s going to run will be talking and is talking to our colleagues,” Lee said.

Sánchez running for caucus chairwoman would create an opening for her own leadership position, so interested members may look for her to make a decision sooner rather than later. 

She is just one of a cadre of Democratic lawmakers in lower-rung leadership positions frequently mentioned as possible candidates for moving up the ranks. But as Lee’s interest shows, members not currently in leadership also want a seat at the table.

In a cycle that has seen a significant number of prospective freshmen calling for new leadership across the board — joining a small group of rank-and-file members who have publicly pushed for changes at the top of the caucus — the environment is ripe for members with leadership ambitions to make a go for it.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn, all in their late 70s, have led for several consecutive Congresses. Crowley was considered their heir apparent or even a potential candidate to challenge one of them under the right circumstances.

More potential names

With Crowley no longer a factor after his primary loss, private conversations about the next generation of Democratic leadership have heated up.

While some members — Sánchez and Lee, for example — eye the guaranteed open spot, others with leadership ambitions are keeping their options open with November results pending.

Some of the current lower-level leaders whose names get tossed around as potential candidates for climbing the ranks include Reps. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Hakeem Jeffries of New York, David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Eric Swalwell of California.

Luján chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is in charge of recruiting candidates, helping them raise money and get elected.

Bustos, Jeffries and Cicilline co-chair the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the group leading the caucus’ messaging efforts.

And Swalwell co-chairs the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee that doles out committee assignments.

None have openly expressed interest in chairing the caucus or angling for a higher rank, but they’ve also not ruled anything out.

Bustos would only key in on the importance of geographic diversity when asked if she wants to move up.

“I sit around the leadership table now. I’m the only Midwesterner,” she said. “I’m the only member sitting around that table that comes from a district Donald Trump won.”

Jeffries played even more coy about his ambitions.

“My sole focus right now is continuing our work as Democratic Policy and Communication co-chairs that deliver a message that excites Americans all across the country,” he said.

Recent changes

The lower-level leadership roles changed somewhat in 2016, as the caucus voted to make the DCCC and DPCC chairmanships elected positions. Luján was still able to run unchallenged for DCCC chairman, but six candidates ended up running for the DPCC as it was expanded from one chairman to three. Bustos, Jeffries and Cicilline beat out Reps. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, John Delaney of Maryland and Steve Cohen of Tennessee for the DPCC jobs.

These changes and others — such as the addition of a leadership position for a member who’s been in Congress for five terms or less and the creation of vice ranking members — were designed to expand leadership opportunities, especially for newer members.

The Steering co-chairs are still effectively appointed by Pelosi, with the full caucus ratifying her choice. Swalwell co-chairs the panel with Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro.

If these leaders, most of whom have been in leadership for only a single term, seek to move up or just run for re-election to their current posts, they are likely to face competition from colleagues not currently in leadership. Lee is just one of several members not currently in the leadership circle who wants a seat at the table.

Others whose names come up as possible leadership candidates include Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana and Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and many others, including freshmen members such as Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

Far from an exhaustive list, the next month or so could see the number of potential candidates grow before the field ultimately narrows. The conversations are just beginning.

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