A Generation of House Democrats Fears Being Passed Over

As newer lawmakers agitate for the party's septuagenarian leaders to go, what happens to the members in the middle?

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, joined at left by Rep. Seth Moulton
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
July 25, 2018, 8 p.m.

At a recent dinner with Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Ed Perlmutter, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver said the three discussed at length the future of the House Democratic Caucus.

Nobody, however, proposed themselves as that future, he said.

“We sat at the table for a couple hours. Nobody was saying, ‘It’s my time!’” he said. “Most of us realize that we are going to play supportive roles for the duration because the next crop of leaders are very likely going to be there for a long time.”

As talk abounds of a generational change at the House Democratic leadership table, a question lingers for members who began their service around the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s: Will they be the next generation of leaders or will they be the forgotten generation?

There exists a level of frustration among some of these members, who have spent their career toiling at the fringes of power, that despite being in a caucus that puts a high premium on seniority and despite having paid their dues, they are overlooked in favor of fresher faces in the public search for a new crop of leaders.

Cleaver said part of the reason they’ve been passed over is the mentality of his generation, borne of the fact that there were not systems in place to cultivate new leaders when he was a newer member and that they came in during an era of larger-than-life legislative figures, such as Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and now-departed committee chairs like former Reps. John Conyers, John Dingell, Barney Frank, and Charlie Rangel.

“Nobody came in looking for the next place because the next place was occupied by the giants,” Cleaver said. “The people who came in later, particularly after the collapse of the giants … those are the people who now [say], ‘What about me?’”

Indeed, the entrenchment caused by the seniority system has created a bottleneck. The top three leaders—Pelosi, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, and Assistant to the Leader James Clyburn—have held those top three positions for more than a decade, and there are only so many committee chairmanships to go around.

“They’ve been there long enough and they’ve done it to the detriment of … anyone who’s been here 20 years to 10 years. They’ve been disserved by this stranglehold on power,” Rep. Kathleen Rice said. “They have not been given the opportunity to be the next generation. They should’ve been the ones stepping up in 2010 when we lost the majority.”

The party has seen a brain drain over the years, as potential leaders such as former Reps. Rahm Emanuel, Ellen Tauscher, Jane Harman, Steve Israel, Chris Van Hollen, and Xavier Becerra sought opportunities outside of the institution. Still, while Cleaver thinks that those who have remained lack leadership ambition, others don’t see it that way.

“I don’t think we will be the forgotten generation,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the Oversight Committee. “The frustration that ... some of our younger members have, the people in our middle area probably went through that same frustration too.”

Cummings said that while the newer generations undoubtedly have progressive energy on their side, the older generations have institutional, strategic knowledge that should be tapped as well.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley had filled the role of an heir apparent, but his surprise primary loss has precipitated a new round of leadership searching. Yet some think that the middle generation is overlooked because those members are savvy enough not to wear their ambition on their sleeve for fear of retribution or suppression from the top.

Eight-term Rep. Tim Ryan fielded a quixotic challenge to Pelosi in 2017 and peeled off a third of the caucus, showing there is real appetite for change. Now, members point to a tier of people who could assume the mantle in the event a full wipeout of the top-three leaders is called for by the new generation.

Those include Cummings, who has served since 1996; Reps. Adam Smith and Ron Kind, members since 1997; Intelligence Committee ranking member Adam Schiff, who has served since 2001; and Cleaver, in office since 2005. Rep. Diana DeGette, who has served since 1997, is already exploring a run for whip, and Rep. Linda Sanchez (2003) is vying against Rep. Barbara Lee (1998) for Conference chairwoman. Even Ways and Means ranking member Richard Neal, who took office not long after Pelosi in 1989, is part of the discussion.

A junior member, speaking anonymously to candidly discuss internal conference dynamics, said if those longer-tenured members want to be part of the discussion, they should put themselves out front, instead of letting other people do the work of promoting them.

“There’s outside pressure towards going to a younger generation, a fresh face,” the member said. “Somebody’s got to step forward and show a strong interest, and it’s got to be somebody who’s done that painstaking work. You can spend 10 years here, 15 years here without engaging in that kind of process of developing alliances and relationships.”

Many oft-mentioned leadership candidates, such as Reps. David Cicilline, Karen Bass, Cheri Bustos, Hakeem Jeffries, Joe Kennedy III, Seth Moulton, Cedric Richmond, and Eric Swalwell—some of whom have outwardly expressed their ambitions—have served four terms or fewer. Other names come up in discussions with members, such as whip candidate and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Lujan, New Democrats Chairman Jim Himes, and Reps. Ted Deutch and Marcia Fudge—all of whom have served five terms or more.

Rep. Raul Grijalva said the likeliest scenario in the event of a full leadership shake-up is a mixture, perhaps a more tenured member at the top with a generational step down each rung of the leadership ladder in order to cultivate future leaders—an idea several members cosigned.

“About 60 percent of our members are here less than 8 years. That’s a big chunk. And it’s going to increase next time too. It’s going to be 75, 70 percent,” Grijalva said. “To coexist, you’re going to have a mixture of the two. There’s no way around it.”

Moulton, one of the biggest agitators for change, said he could be talked into that plan “if we have some diversity, if there are some young people as well.

“I think we should have older folks represented in the caucus and younger folks as well, but fundamentally this isn’t about age. This is about new ideas, a vision for the future,” Moulton said. “It’s about having leadership that looks at the diverse talent in our caucus as an asset, not as a threat to their current position.”

Another junior member, speaking anonymously, said that, on the contrary, a large blue wave could facilitate a genuine generational wipeout.

“If there’s going to be a change in leadership, I think there’s going to be a real need for a new generation,” the member said. “I think it would be hard for some of those folks who have been around for a long time to be in the mix. People are ready for some new energy.”

Still, Rep. Gerald Connolly said he is not convinced.

“One should not confuse the desire to turn a new leaf with, ‘Therefore, no one over the age of 35 need apply,’” Connolly quipped. “I don’t think that will matter, if they’re looking for change, as much as we need to change the current leadership. … Who that is, it matters less than the need that they do it.”

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