The Democrats’ Ace by Night, Pivotal Trade Vote by Day
Rare is the moment when so much attention is focused simultaneously on the same member of Congress for two totally different reasons. But the end of this week marks that time of trial, both athletically and legislatively, for Rep. Cedric L. Richmond.
On Thursday night, his fellow Democrats will be counting on him to repeat what he’s done in each of the previous four years since arriving to represent New Orleans in the House: Pitch his party to victory in the Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game.
And as soon as Friday, proponents of trade liberalization will be aching for his support on one of the closest and most consequential votes of the year. That’s legislation that would limit Congress to accepting or rejecting, but not changing, the trade agreement among a dozen Pacific Rim nations that won’t ever be completed by President Barack Obama without such a “fast track” congressional commitment.
Neither expectation has anything like a guarantee of fulfillment, which only means more of the sort of extraordinary scrutiny that doesn’t often confront a relatively junior backbencher from the minority party in the House.
Richmond has been working to hold the attention at bay by sending mixed signals about how “undecided” his intentions are for both the diamond and the House floor. It’s the sort of pregame misdirection shared by savvy players in both sports and politics.
Officially, Democratic manager Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania hasn’t said who his starter will be for the 54th summer classic at Nationals Park. Richmond, a Morehouse College standout, is nonetheless widely expected to get the call, although how many innings he lasts is an open question.
With both a commanding fastball and a sharp curve, the right-hander tossed dominating complete games in each of his past outings, allowing a total of 10 earned runs on 13 hits while striking out 38 Republicans. But soon after winning his third term in November, Richmond underwent surgery for a labrum tear in his 41-year-old pitching shoulder, so it’s reasonable to expect he won’t last all seven innings this time. (His pitch count has averaged 112 in his four victories, 60 percent of them strikes.)
Whatever worries his teammates have about Richmond’s reliability on the mound, however, will almost surely be overshadowed within a few hours after the game — by what he does with his pitching hand after taking out his voting card for the landmark trade bill.
The Democrats are all counting on Richmond to help their ball club win for a seventh consecutive year (and break the current 38-38-1 deadlock in the series.) But they are passionately divided on what his proper move is on the pivotal trade ballot.
Of the 188 members of the Democratic Caucus, 6 out of 7 are firmly opposed to the measure even though it’s the president’s top legislative priority this year. Obama appears to have secured the “yes” votes of only about 20 Democrats. If the Republicans produce more than 195 votes, they will exceed their own stated expectations.
Because the Senate has already endorsed the measure, that could leave its fate in the hands of fewer than a dozen of the publicly uncommitted House Democrats, Richmond among them.
On the one hand, two of the economic engines of his district, the Port of South Louisiana and the Port of New Orleans, are among the 10 biggest importing and exporting shipping hubs in the nation. Their volume of cargo would presumably only go up under Trans-Pacific Partnership.
On the other hand, organized labor is a powerful force among his constituents, and national union leaders are working hard to defeat the bill with the argument the Pacific trade accord will create far fewer jobs than will get shipped overseas. And few of the payroll positions that might be created are likely to go to the low-skilled people of the poorer New Orleans wards.
After an admittedly slow start to his own lobbying effort, Obama has telephoned Richmond more than once to make his pitch, which reportedly has been about both the merits to the domestic economy of expanding trade and an appeal for loyalty from the Congressional Black Caucus. The president also has dispatched U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to Richmond’s office.
But the ways in which the White House has been selling the trade agenda may have been less persuasive than the political pressure tactics being applied by the AFL-CIO — and in the opposite way that the group’s President Richard Trumka had hoped by threatening to deny labor’s money and organizational muscle in 2016 to Democrats backing Obama.
“I think labor is going a little overboard and I think that there’s some potential backlash,” Richmond told reporters last week. “The more Trumka talks, the more I lean ‘yes.’”
That may be a head fake, but it also could be a stare down. Richmond has grown increasingly comfortable deploying both sports techniques during his House career.
Athletics have been Richmond’s passion since childhood and were also the starting point for public life. He coached youth baseball starting at 16, pitched in college and coached both baseball and basketball while in law school at Tulane. He says his first run for the state House, where he spent a decade, was inspired in part by frustration that more public funding wasn’t available for his urban Little League squads.
Now he’s the only Democrat in his state’s eight-person delegation. He describes himself as strongly incentivized to work with Republicans on local concerns and has a close relationship with Majority Whip Steve Scalise, with whom he served in the Louisiana Legislature.
Those tentacles into bipartisanship may yet tip the balance on his trade vote. But first, a partisan performance will be expected. And if Richmond isn’t up to pitching, he’s still a likely threat at the plate. His totals in the past four games: 10 hits in 12 at bats, with five runs scored and five batted in.