With challenge to Pelosi, Ryan pushes change for Democratic leadership

Rep. Tim Ryan from Ohio declared his intention to run against Nancy Pelosi for the House minority leader position, despite holding little name recognition.

Paul Morigi/ Images for The National Association of Drug Court Professionals/ AP/ File
Actor Matthew Perry, left, an 'All Rise Ambassador' for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, meets with Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) following his testimony before the House Commerce, Justice & Science Appropriations Subcommittee in support of funding for Drug Courts and Veterans Treatment Courts on Thursday, March 21, 2013 in Washington, DC.

One emerging storyline from the elections this year seems to be that of surprise candidates outshining established ones – and a little-known Democrat, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, is hoping it will prove true for him as well.

On Thursday, Representative Ryan declared his intention to challenge incumbent Congressional House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the party leadership she has held for 13 years, citing their losses in last week's elections – failure to regain a majority in the House or Senate, not to mention the presidential rate – as a need for change.

Representative Pelosi served as minority leader from 2003 until 2007, then became Speaker of the House. In 2011, after Republicans gained the majority, she was again elected minority leader. 

“What we are doing right now is not working. Under our current leadership, Democrats have been reduced to our smallest congressional minority since 1929,” Ryan wrote in a letter to his fellow representatives in the House Democratic Caucus. “This should indicate to all of us that keeping our leadership team completely unchanged will simply lead to more disappointment in future elections.”

Ryan and Pelosi’s resumes, however, suggest to observers that his bid may be a long shot. Ryan has never held a House leadership position, and his history of fundraising pales considerably compared to Pelosi, who has four decades of political experience and has been called the most powerful elected woman in US history. But with the wave of frustration against party old-guard, and a thirst for fresh perspectives, Ryan’s bid may herald an incoming generation of new politicians eager for some soul-searching, regardless of his success.

“It’s really interesting how the two parties over the last decade have seen dissent in House caucuses at a level that we haven’t seen before,” Richard Bensel, a professor of government at Cornell University, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “[There is] just a wish for a less centralized policy direction and control … I don’t think Ryan is a heavyweight, [but] I do think there is going to be real sentiment for replacing Pelosi.”

Professor Bensel says that Ryan's image, as a Rust Belt native trying to forge a new identity for Democrats, might help win him win favor from representatives willing to consider an alternative. 

"I do love her, and this is tough because this is a battle within the family," Ryan said in an interview on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show," as reported by The Hill. "We've got to talk about the future … We need a leader who can go into all those districts and persuade people who voted for Donald Trump to come back into the Democratic folds. I think I can do that. I know I can do that."

His announcement came a day after Pelosi's own declaration for a re-election, when she claimed to already have the support of two-thirds of the Democrats in the House. Last week, several dozen Democrats circulated a letter calling for Pelosi to stay in her position, as a seasoned veteran and symbol of female leadership.

But after the election, in which Democrats' gains were not enough to retake the Republican majority, Pelosi reportedly faces doubts about her position. The leadership elections have now been delayed until after Thanksgiving.

According to aides' interviews with RealClearPolitics, many younger members are dissatisfied with what they see as veterans' "unwillingness" to "re-evaluate strategy." The top three Democrats in Congress, including Pelosi, are in their 70s.

The 43-year-old Ryan, on the other hand, sells himself as being able to "energize the diverse base of our party" and court blue-collar voters who went for Trump. On his website, he describes himself as a "relentless advocate for working families in Ohio's 13th District," highlighting his commitment to manufacturing and the local economy. Ryan currently serves as a member of the House Appropriations Committee and House Budget Committee. 

"I think this is a statement by Ryan, if nothing else, [that] it's time for some of you old people to move aside and let new people come up," Jack Wright, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, tells the Monitor in a phone interview. "I think he views himself as a voice of the more blue collar working class that tends to get ignored in the Democratic party in terms of leadership."

Ryan entered the House in 2002, and has proven more of a moderate than some of the party's congressional leaders. Before entering Congress, he had a record of voting for anti-abortion measures, but changed his position in 2015, after listening to stories from Ohio women and becoming a father. According to his website and voting records, Ryan is an opponent of free-trade agreements, and supports higher minimum wage and the Affordable Care Act.

Some see Ryan's challenge as a beginning of a brewing rebellion, while others consider it a publicity stunt, gearing up to an eventual run for Ohio governor, RealClearPolitics reports. But in one area, at least, he has already made a name for himself: mindfulness. The congressman is the author of "A Mindful Nation," has has hosted weekly meditation sessions in Congress, and won federal funding to teach mindfulness to children in his Ohio district.

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