Crowley’s Time to Lead Has Arrived

Posted July 8, 2009 at 6:30pm

Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.) has spent a decade toiling as an ambitious lieutenant to House Democratic leaders. Today, finally, he takes command of his own company.

The Queens Democrat is stepping into the chairmanship of the New Democrat Coalition, an increasingly influential 68-member bloc trying to ensure a mostly liberal Caucus doesn’t bulldoze business interests.

“We’re really the sweet spot of the Caucus,— Crowley said in an interview in his Rayburn office Wednesday. “We’re go-to as far as it pertains to innovation, high-tech, folks who bring outside experiences, real-life experiences to the House.—

Crowley takes the reins at a critical time. While the New Democrats mostly supported the climate change package — 11 voted against it — they have raised serious concerns about the size and shape of the health care overhaul that House Democrats are trying to hammer out this month. And they are pushing to ensure that financial regulatory reform — a top priority for the White House — doesn’t hamstring industry with overly burdensome new rules.

The New Democrats have spent the past four years growing from relative obscurity into a legislative force under the leadership of then-Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), who quit the House last month for a top State Department post. Crowley acknowledged she will be a tough act to follow.

But while the affable New Yorker downplayed any differences between Tauscher’s leadership style and what he intends his to be, he touted a consensus-building approach many expect will be his hallmark.

“The leadership we have around us is going to be incredible,— he said, pointing to the slate of vice chairmen that the coalition is expected to confirm today as it elevates Crowley: Reps. Melissa Bean (Ill.), Ron Kind (Wis.), Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) and Adam Smith (Wash.). “I’m going to look to them for their experiences, their expertise and their guidance,— he said.

Moderate lawmakers, aides and strategists agreed that where Tauscher often took a top-down approach to guiding the group, Crowley is more likely to hunt for common ground in its ranks. “Crowley is going to be looking for where there’s consensus and mass appeal,— one senior strategist said.

It’s a stylistic difference illustrated by how the two have spent their time in the chamber. While Tauscher logged more hours than any of her colleagues in the Speaker’s chair, keeping a firm grip on floor proceedings, Crowley, a Chief Deputy Whip, relishes mixing it up on the floor, often lingering long after the chamber has cleared out to continue chatting with colleagues.

Another difference: While Tauscher never had designs on elected leadership, Crowley has been a repeat candidate for slots at the top of the House Democratic hierarchy. Tauscher’s posture freed her to confront leaders on make-or-break issues for New Democrats. And while some moderates have voiced quiet concern that Crowley’s interest in joining the Caucus leadership later could complicate his ability to challenge it now, the six-term Democrat suggested the two goals don’t conflict.

“The veracity of our membership is what’s important here,— he said, “and getting across that even if Joe Crowley can vote for a bill, that doesn’t necessarily mean the New Democrat Coalition can be supportive, or that a large percentage of them can be supportive.—

As for his long-term plans, Crowley, 47, said his new gig could in fact help him make the case for a formal leadership post. “When one door shuts, other doors open sometimes, and that doesn’t mean those other doors are shut forever,— he said. “And I think it gives me an opportunity in many respects to show what I can bring to the table in terms of leadership and continue that growth, as well.—

But so far, Crowley’s moderate stripes have hurt his rise in a liberal Caucus. Despite distinguishing himself as a fundraising force, raising millions of dollars for the party, he previously alienated Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) by serving as a top supporter of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Crowley threw his name out a few times for openings atop the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and lost a 2006 bid for Caucus vice chairman to Rep. John Larson (Conn.), a Pelosi ally, when her backers switched their support to Larson on the second ballot. In the wake of that loss, Crowley resisted efforts by moderates last year to draft him into another bid for the job while Pelosi allies crowded the ballot.

At the time, once it appeared that newly elected Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) would bolt to become President Barack Obama’s trade negotiator, Crowley leapt into a shadow race to replace him, forming a whip team and quickly rounding up support. But Becerra wound up dropping out of consideration for the administration job, prematurely ending Crowley’s effort.

Crowley has worked hard to repair the breach with Pelosi. Now, he said, they get along “excellently,— pointing to a note she sent him Tuesday to thank him for his work helping pass the climate bill. (“Thanks for being such a great whip,— she hand-wrote at the bottom of the letter.)

Assuming control of the group, Crowley is becoming a key figure for leaders to court. On top of a rich source of votes, the coalition offers an important barometer for leaders trying to figure out how to build the ideas of newer members into the agenda. Fully 31 New Democrats are freshmen or sophomores, and the group’s leaders have moved quickly to integrate them into the five task forces that constitute its policy-making apparatus. “These folks who have been elected in the last two cycles in particular are very critical to maintaining our majority,— Crowley said.

The chairmanship may be Crowley’s first crack at commanding a squad of House Democrats, but he has no shortage of other responsibilities.

On top of his whip duties, Crowley is chairman of the Queens Democratic Party and vice chairman for finance of the DCCC. “I’m from New York,— he said. “We know how to walk and chew gum at the same time.—

As for leading the New Democrats, Crowley said the measure of his success will be reflected in that of the broader Caucus. “We’re Democrats first,— he said. “And we’re about the agenda of our party, and of our leadership, and the presidency, and how we can make an impact on the legislation.—