Congress

House Democrats weigh seniority and gender politics in replacing Cummings

Maloney in line to chair Oversight panel, but two men are also on secret ballot

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., has seniority on the Oversight and Reform Committee but must defeat two challengers in a secret vote this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats will confront longtime divisions over gender politics and how much weight to give seniority when they hold a secret vote Wednesday to select a permanent leader for a committee investigating possible ethical violations in President Donald Trump’s administration. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi elevated the most senior member of the Oversight and Reform Committee, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney of New York, to acting chairwoman after Chairman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland died last month, per caucus rules.

Reps. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia and Stephen F. Lynch of Massachusetts are challenging her, and their supporters are happy to make not-for-attribution comments that question her ability to stand up to the GOP’s most vociferous Trump defenders.

But Democrats say they worry about speaking openly against Maloney because of the optics of choosing a younger white man instead of a woman to succeed an African American, especially after she was already passed over once.

Maloney, a 14-term progressive who has served on the committee since 1993, is considered the front-runner.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter last month, she touted her work helping to remove the citizenship question from the 2020 census, promote the Equal Rights Amendment, and introduce bills to guarantee paid family leave for federal employees.

She also pledged to continue Cummings’ rigorous oversight of Trump and his administration, which predates the impeachment proceedings focused on Ukraine in the Intelligence Committee. Those probes included questioning the Homeland Security Department’s family separation policy, the federal response to hurricanes, and alleged ethical violations by senior Trump officials.

Maloney has largely won backing from the 53-member Congressional Black Caucus, whose older members traditionally vote for the most senior members to lead committees. Cummings was one of the longest-serving members of the CBC before his death.

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Missouri Rep. William Lacy Clay, the second- and third-highest ranking Democrats on the Oversight panel, have been whipping votes for Maloney, who is also the only candidate who is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

GOP counterweight needed

Her critics say Maloney’s bread-and-butter issues — aid for 9/11 first responders and advocacy for the ERA — are important, but do not align with the committee’s priorities, especially with Trump running roughshod over norms.

Before becoming acting chairwoman, Maloney was not as actively involved in the day-to-day investigative operations that have dominated the committee’s work since Democrats reclaimed the majority in January, multiple Democratic aides familiar with members’ deliberations have said.

And many Democrats, including some who sit on the panel with her, have questioned whether Maloney has the demeanor to counter Republican ranking member Jim Jordan of Ohio. One of Trump’s most aggressive defenders, Jordan was temporarily assigned, for example, to the Intelligence Committee for the public impeachment hearings.

Connolly, who has made numerous appearances on cable networks to criticize Trump, mentioned Jordan twice in a letter pitching his candidacy to colleagues last week.

“My colleagues who have seen me take on Jim Jordan know I will not back down from a fight. I’ve shown I have the skills to communicate our Democratic message while exposing the hollowness and contradictions of the Republican arguments,” he wrote.

History repeating?

Cummings used a similar message, that he was the superior communicator, when he defeated Maloney to become ranking member in 2010 despite the New York Democrat having more seniority.

Republicans had just won a new majority, and incoming GOP Chairman Darrell Issa of California had a well-known reputation for pugnacious partisanship in front of the cameras.

Members have resisted publicly airing concerns over Maloney’s ability to spar with Jordan and other Republicans because it could open them up to accusations of ageism and sexism, aides have said. Maloney is 73, while Connolly is 69 and Lynch is 64.

House Democrats have also pushed for more diversity among committee leaders in their caucus, especially in contrast to the heavily white and male Republican conference.

Connolly surging?

After teasing a bid for the gavel throughout most of November, Connolly  has garnered promises of support from many key members.

Fellow Virginia Rep. Jennifer Wexton introduced him to the Democratic freshman class last week. And Connolly has often acted as a bridge between senior committee members and assertive Democratic newbies such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts.

Nevada Rep. Dina Titus, a member of the Democratic Policy and Steering Committee that will recommend Cummings’ replacement after a meeting on Tuesday at 1 p.m., is in Connolly’s corner. Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr.  also helped him make a pitch to the Progressive Caucus last week.

Maloney’s office would not respond to her critics. Lynch, who is seen as a long shot in part because of his vote against the 2010 health care law, said in a statement he intends to “continue the good work of our colleague and friend, Elijah Cummings.”

Connolly, in an interview with CQ Roll Call, conceded that Maloney has seniority. But he said he has a deeper knowledge of issues the committee has been investigating, including whether Trump’s real estate business put him in violation of the emoluments clause; lapses in White House security clearance protocols; and payments Trump made ahead of the 2016 election to women who claimed to have slept with him.

“This is not a business-as-usual selection. We are in a crisis with this presidency and the fight between the branches — legislative and executive — and we need to field the best team we can,” Connolly said. “What ought to be dispositive is who is the most capable.”

First elected to the House in 2008, Connolly was Cummings’ vice ranking member in the last Congress and since 2013 has been the top Democrat on the Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations, the subcommittee with the most sweeping investigative reach.

Tight lips

Pelosi and her leadership team have not picked sides, and the secret ballot members of the caucus will cast means Demcorats will not have to tell colleagues how they vote.

As is often the case in competitive races to lead committees, some members have been linked to multiple candidates.

“The entire NY delegation is backing Maloney,” a spokesman for New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler wrote in a text.

Other Democratic aides, however, said that “The Squad” of four liberal freshman congresswomen, which includes New York’s Ocasio-Cortez, is pitching for Connolly.

The caucus will gather at 3 p.m. on Wednesday to cast votes.

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