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Why the lower tier of Democratic leaders is worth watching

Why We Wrote This

Leadership is often steeped in lengthy experience. That is certainly the case for the three lawmakers selected to lead House Democrats. But amid growing demand for generational change, they also elevated some new faces.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California walks into caucus leadership elections at the Capitol in Washington on Nov. 28, 2018. More than three-quarters of Democrats nominated her to be the next speaker of the House, with the full House scheduled to vote on Jan. 3.

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House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has been widely criticized for clogging the leadership pipeline. But she has also worked to create more positions and widen the decisionmaking circle to include newer members. And while the top three leaders chosen by Democrats this week will be the same folks who have been running things for more than a decade – Ms. Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn – at some point this troika will step aside and the next generation will step up. That’s why it’s worth focusing on the winners of the lower-rung positions on the leadership ladder. Among the rising stars is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a 48-year-old African-American from New York who used a previous Pelosi-created position as a springboard to his new role as chair of the caucus, the No. 5 job for Democrats. He is often talked about as a potential future speaker. Indeed, the group of leaders elected this week is, as Pelosi sometimes calls her colleagues, a “kaleidoscope” – not unlike the diverse Americans who handed Democrats the steering wheel in the House this fall. Here’s a look at some of the newest members of the Democratic leadership team.

Even before Wednesday’s election results were announced, House Democrats knew who their top three leaders would be. It’s the same folks who have been running things for more than a decade – Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn. All pushing 80 years old, they all ran unopposed, with more than three-quarters of the Democratic caucus nominating leader Pelosi to be the next speaker of the House.

Ms. Pelosi still has to win over more supporters when the whole House votes for speaker on Jan. 3. But at some point – and critics hope it’s sooner rather than later – this troika will step aside and the next generation will step up. That’s why it’s worth focusing on the winners of the lower-rung positions on the leadership ladder. Usually, only political junkies are curious about these folks, and that’s been especially true for the past eight years that House Democrats have wandered in a political wilderness as the minority power.

Not anymore. While Pelosi has been criticized for clogging the pipeline, she has also worked to create more leadership positions and widen the decision-making circle to include newer members. Among the rising stars is Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, an African-American from New York, who used one of those previous Pelosi-created positions as a springboard to his new role as chair of the caucus – the No. 5 job. He’s often talked about as a potential future speaker. 

“I think the brilliance of Leader Pelosi was always the ability to create more seats at the leadership table,” says former Democratic Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who once occupied one of those seats. “Rather than being exclusive, she was inclusive. Even in the minority, she found a way to bring people into the conference room for leadership settings and ensure they made valuable contributions.”

Of course, standard bearers can emerge from places other than these slots – chairmanships or caucus leaders. For instance, South Carolina’s Congressman Clyburn, now the chief vote counter, or “whip” (the No. 3 slot), began his ascent as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. 

But the Democratic lawmakers who were elected this week had to make their case before all of their political peers, and those peers took a definite generational turn, electing people in their 50s and 40s, progressive and moderate, minorities and women.

The group is, as Pelosi calls sometimes calls her legislative colleagues, a “kaleidoscope” – not unlike the diverse Americans who handed Democrats the steering wheel in the House this fall.

Here is a look at some of the newest members of the Democratic leadership team.

Ben Ray Luján, assistant Democratic leader

These days, it’s not unusual for Rep. Ben Ray Luján’s name to come up in talk about the 2018 elections. As the first Latino to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the New Mexico congressman helped raise and direct the funds that ultimately led to the party’s House takeover.

He cemented his place in the national spotlight on Election Night when he stood with Pelosi to celebrate the victory. The next day, he launched his bid for assistant Democratic leader, the No. 4 spot in the caucus (he ran uncontested).

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D) of New Mexico, the outgoing chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will be the new assistant Democratic leader, the No. 4 leadership slot.

Congressman Luján also plays up his humbler roots: How his grandfather was a sheep herder and his father an ironworker before becoming speaker of the New Mexico House. The 46-year-old Luján himself worked nights as a blackjack dealer at a tribal casino until he got his college degree in 2007.

Luján got his start in politics in 2002 as New Mexico’s deputy treasurer. In 2008, he ran for the Third District, which then-Rep. Tom Udall vacated to run for the US Senate. This will be his sixth term. 

Hakeem Jeffries, caucus chair 

Democrats opted for generational change when they elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries to be their caucus chair – the fifth-highest position in leadership, and one that will put the ambitious congressman in the room where the important decisions are made. Some in the caucus speculate that this rising star could eventually become the first African-American speaker of the House.

Congressman Jeffries, who hails from Brooklyn, in New York, and is just finishing up his third term, has been a fierce critic of President Trump. But he emphasizes consensus-building among the most diverse caucus in history (a “gorgeous mosaic” he calls it), and the need to work with the president where possible. In college, his fraternity brothers nicknamed him “Kool Ha” for his measured speaking.

He narrowly beat the far more experienced and left-leaning Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who is the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (Jeffries is a member of the caucus). Congresswoman Lee told reporters after the vote that she felt ageism and sexism had played a role.

Still, Lee supporters like African-American Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida said they were pleased that a black member who is “young enough, smart enough, and has the respect of the caucus” is in a top slot that could some day lead to the speakership. “This is almost like President Obama’s inauguration!” said Congresswoman Wilson from underneath her trademark star-spangled cowboy hat.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D) of New York, meets with reporters after being elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus for the 116th Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 28, 2018.

With support from Pelosi, Jeffries was elected in 2016 to one of three new co-chairmanships that she created to hone the Democrats’ election messaging. He calls himself a “pragmatic progressive” – a pro-union Democrat with experience as a corporate attorney.

The congressman’s passion is criminal justice reform and economic inequality, and he is a top cosponsor of the bipartisan prison reform bill that lawmakers on both sides are trying to push through this lame-duck session. He served in the New York State Assembly for six years before being elected to Congress in 2012. 

Katherine Clark, caucus vice chair 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren may be Massachusetts’ liberal star, but Rep. Katherine Clark, who represents the state’s Fifth District, has made her own waves.

In 2015, she launched a campaign against online harassment that inspired an anonymous caller to falsely report an active shooter at the congresswoman’s home in Melrose, Mass., bringing armed police officers to her lawn.

In 2016, after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Florida, she joined civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia in leading a sit-in on the House floor, demanding that Republican leaders allow a vote on gun control legislation.

A year later, a C-SPAN video of Congresswoman Clark grilling Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about discrimination against LGBTQ students in private schools went viral.

Now, after besting California Rep. Pete Aguilar for caucus vice chair, Clark is poised to help shape party policy. She’s said her goal is to incorporate the historic diversity of the 116th Congress into the party’s policymaking process.

Clark was first elected to Congress in 2013 to fill the seat then-Rep. Ed Markey vacated when he ran for Senate. Prior to the House, Clark served on her local school board and then in the state senate.  

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP
Rep. Katherine Clark (D) of Massachusetts, speaking at a news conference on Jan. 10, 2018, is the new vice chair of the Democratic caucus.

David Cicilline, chair of the DPCC

Last week, Pelosi announced another new position in party leadership: chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC), the caucus’s messaging arm.

The next day, Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline sent a letter saying he would drop his bid against Luján for assistant Democratic leader and run – unopposed – for the new post instead.

Congressman Cicilline had previously served as one of three DPCC co-chairs (which the new position will be above) alongside Jeffries and Rep. Cheri Bustos (D) of Illinois, helping craft the new party slogan, “For the people.” Though not among Pelosi’s favorites for that role – she’d reportedly wanted someone who could appeal to a working-class constituency – Cicilline ran, won, and has since made a case for working families that Pelosi has praised.

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP
Rep. David Cicilline (D) of Rhode Island, speaking during a news conference in the Capitol on July 24, 2018, will be the new chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the party's messaging arm.

But Cicilline’s big passion is gun control. As mayor of Providence, he was a founding member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which later helped form the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. In 2015, he authored a bill to reinstate a federal ban on assault weapons.  

Cicilline became the fourth openly gay member of Congress when he won the First District seat in 2010. He currently serves as co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus and, following the legalization of gay marriage in 2014, introduced legislation to broaden anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community.

Cheri Bustos, chair of the DCCC

This former reporter from Illinois has been all about one thing: making sure Democrats don’t overlook the Heartland, like they did in 2016.

In a leadership team almost exclusively made up of lawmakers from the coasts, she’s the only one from the Midwest. Her district in the northwest corner of Illinois covers a lot of rural territory, and Trump won it (barely) two years ago. Her grandfather was a hog farmer – and also a state lawmaker.

Like Jeffries, Luján, and Cicilline, she is sometimes mentioned as a possible speaker down the road, but in an interview earlier this year, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) of Virginia batted down that idea. As a speaker, he explained, she would regularly have to defend left-of-center positions, and “that would be a kiss of death in a Trump district.” 

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP
Rep. Cheri Bustos (D) of Illinois speaks with reporters in the Capitol on Oct. 4, 2018. She will be the new head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Still, Representative Bustos’s mantra that the party should field candidates that fit the district – including more conservative ones – was shared by Luján, who led Democrats to victory this year as chair of the DCCC. Now she’s got his job after a three-way race that she handily won.

In 2020, “every single district will be contested and protected,” she said Thursday. She pointed out that Democrats picked up 16 districts in the heartland this time – about the size of the margin they will have to defend in two years.

Bustos is just finishing up her third term, after working in communications in the health-care industry. She is known as a workhorse – recruiting, fundraising, and mentoring new politicians in her “boot camps.” Back home in Illinois, she likes to try out people’s jobs and talk to folks in supermarkets to stay close to her constituents.

Like Jeffries and Cicilline, she used her position as one of the three Pelosi-created co-chairs of the Democrats’ messaging arm as a springboard up the ladder. 

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