House Democrats’ leadership races reflect coming generational change

Openings for assistant speaker, vice chair and caucus leadership rep set off contested races

Ben Ray Luján’s Senate run has set off a domino effect for elected Democratic leadership races. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Ben Ray Luján’s Senate run has set off a domino effect for elected Democratic leadership races. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 23, 2020 at 5:00am, Updated at 8:29am

Corrected 8:29 a.m. | Only one House Democrat in the caucus’s 14-member elected leadership team is exiting the chamber next year, but that opening has created a competitive race for assistant speaker and cleared opportunities for other ambitious Democrats to run for the lower-ranking positions those candidates are vacating.

With Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján running for the open Senate seat in New Mexico, three lawmakers — Tony Cárdenas of California, David Cicilline of Rhode Island and Katherine M. Clark of Massachusetts — are vying to replace him as the fourth-ranking House Democrat.

The top three leaders who have led the caucus for nearly two decades, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 80, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, 81, and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, 80, are expected to stay in those positions, according to several Democratic lawmakers and aides CQ Roll Call spoke with for this report.

The team forming below them represents the generational change many rank-and-file Democrats have long sought. All of the candidates running were first elected to the House in the past decade.

Pelosi has promised she wouldn’t serve as speaker beyond 2022, so whoever becomes assistant speaker is likely a potential candidate to replace her. Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, 50, first elected in 2012, is seeking reelection to the No. 5 leadership post unchallenged and is another potential speaker hopeful.

Assistant speaker

Cárdenas, 57, was the first to jump in the assistant speaker’s race in August. In the 115th Congress, he was the first Democrat elected to a newly created leadership position representing members serving five or fewer terms. Term-limited from serving again, he opted not to run for another leadership post this Congress and instead focus on running the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s campaign arm, BOLD PAC, which he’s chaired for six years.

Cárdenas said a top priority as assistant speaker would be improving disparities in staff diversity. He said 80 some percent of chiefs of staff, legislative directors and communications directors are white, which is not reflective of the caucus or the broader population.

Cárdenas wants to continue Luján’s use of the office to support the freshman class, helping them acclimate. He also wants to ensure the Hispanic Caucus continues to have representation in leadership to advocate policy approaches on issues such as immigration, health care and education that are important to Latinos.

“We’ve missed opportunities in the past to bring comprehensive immigration reform forward,” Cárdenas said.

Cicilline, Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Jeffries were first elected to leadership together in 2016 to co-chair the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, which until that cycle had been an appointed role.

In 2018, Cicilline started running for assistant speaker but dropped out to let Luján run unopposed after he chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the cycle the party retook the House. Pelosi created a new DPCC chair position for Cicilline to oversee the three co-chairs, and he was elected unopposed.

Cicilline, 59, told CQ Roll Call he’s running for assistant speaker to make it “really useful to the caucus,” citing his work with DPCC messaging.

The DPCC crafted the For the People agenda for the 2018 cycle and has led the messaging on caucus efforts to fulfill promises Democrats made on health care, infrastructure and cleaner government.

Cicilline touted media rows, regional press calls and days of action among messaging opportunities the DPCC created for members. He envisions the assistant speaker working closely with the DPCC on messaging, supporting the freshman class and leaning on the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion to improve staff diversity, but he’s also soliciting members’ ideas for the role.

“In a lot of ways, the next assistant speaker can shape this position,” Cicilline said.

Clark, 57, told CQ Roll Call the assistant speakership is a “natural building block” for the work she’s done as caucus vice chairwoman, helping members with matters ranging from staffing to setting the legislative agenda.

“I have been able to establish relationships across the caucus and build trust with all the different ideologies, geographic concerns,” she said.

In addition to the weekly caucus meetings (which turned into biweekly conference calls during the pandemic) that Clark and Jeffries host, she has met individually with members and set up a dinner series where members interact and hear from outside speakers.

Clark is the second-highest-ranking woman in Democratic leadership and if elected assistant speaker, she’ll be the first woman besides Pelosi to rise above vice chair. “This would be a breakthrough,” she said.

Vice chair

With Clark not running for a second term as vice chairwoman, three Democrats are interested in the No. 6 leadership position. California’s Pete Aguilar and Illinois’ Robin Kelly have declared and New Mexico’s Deb Haaland is considering running.

Aguilar, 41, ran for the post two years ago but lost to Clark, 144-90. He told CQ Roll Call his priority is communication and ensuring members can voice ideas and concerns to leadership, especially during the pandemic where in-person interactions are less frequent. 

Kelly, 64, told CQ Roll Call she sees the role as focused on member services — assistance with hiring staff, finding housing and navigating Congress’ franking rules. She said she wants to bring members together more, like hosting monthly small gatherings.

Haaland, 59, made history as one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress in 2018; she would be the first to serve in House leadership, if elected. Haaland told CQ Roll Call her desire to promote caucus diversity is among the reasons she’s considering running. “I feel like I could move our caucus forward,” she said.

DCCC uncertainty

The No. 7 leadership position could be open if DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos does not seek another term.

“I am focusing on Nov. 3,” the Illinois Democrat told CQ Roll Call when asked if she would run.

While most leadership race ballots fill up long before the November elections, the DCCC race is an exception because incumbents usually finish the job and evaluate their performance before deciding on another run.

If Bustos, 58, doesn’t run, names floated as potential candidates include Texas’ Marc Veasey, 49, whose office did not return a request for comment, and perhaps Cárdenas. Sources said Cárdenas’ success running BOLD PAC makes him a good DCCC chairman candidate.

“I take that as a compliment,” Cárdenas said, noting members have told him the same but he assumes Bustos is running again and would support her.

DPCC

The DPCC has been a stepping stone for Jeffries, Bustos and Cicilline.

With Cicilline vacating his role as head of the committee, the caucus is planning to get rid of the “chair of chairs” post, as it’s called, and have four co-chairs instead of three.

All three current co-chairs, Michigan’s Debbie Dingell, 66, California’s Ted Lieu, 51, and Pennsylvania’s Matt Cartwright, 59, are running for second terms. Colorado’s Joe Neguse, 36, one of two freshman representatives to leadership, is so far the only other contender.

Dingell and Cartwright told CQ Roll Call their leadership has improved member service offerings through regular policy briefings and setting up more member media opportunities. The latter includes hosting media rows on big bills and press calls with members grouped by region.

“One thing that we have learned through a lot of research is that people really trust local media more than national media, and so we’ve put a great deal of emphasis on connecting members to local media,” Cartwright said.

Dingell said the DPCC will expand its offerings next Congress, especially as messaging will change if Democrats win the White House and Senate. “The next two years are going to be two of the most critical,” she said.

Cartwright, the only leadership member in the DCCC’s Frontline Program for vulnerable incumbents, said he plans to ensure the party’s policy and messaging remains tailored to work in Frontline districts “where messaging really matters.”

Lieu’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.

Neguse is campaigning on ideas “to improve the function of the DPCC.” He said the committee should include hyperlocalized data in messaging, describing the impact bills would have in different districts. He said he would also expand the DPCC’s relationships with media outlets focused on rural, minority and millennial issues.

Caucus leadership representative

The caucus leadership representative position, reserved for members serving five or fewer terms, was created in 2016 to address complaints about lack of opportunities for junior members. Caucus rules provide a one-term limit. Maryland’s Jamie Raskin, the current officeholder, is not running for any other leadership position.

Three members have declared bids: third-term Brenda Lawrence of Michigan, and freshmen Jason Crow of Colorado and Colin Allred of Texas.

Lawrence, 65, said she would help junior members navigate committee assignments and develop best practices for legislating and constituent services she’s learned from veterans. She wants to elevate the expertise of newer members who “don’t know how to navigate themselves to the front of the line.”

Crow, 41, wants to foster “productive discussions and debates” about complicated policy topics. He also plans to advocate “advanced calendars and logistics that help those who are traveling a lot and with young families.”

Allred, 37, was not available for an interview but said in a “Dear Colleague” letter he would build on what he’s done as co-president of the freshman class in bringing newer members’ “disparate views and perspectives” to leadership and organizing meetings with top leaders “to discuss difficult and sensitive issues.”

Other wild cards

The candidates for elected freshman leadership representative won’t become clear until the November elections.

The post is usually reserved for one person but this Congress the class was so big it got two. Neguse’s co-representative, Texas’ Veronica Escobar, is not seeking a new caucus leadership post because she’s running for Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair.

Although the assistant speaker’s race is not expected to draw more candidates, other contests likely will, sources predict. Pennsylvania Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, 53, told CQ Roll Call she’s considering a leadership bid but declined to say what position before talking to colleagues. She ran for DPCC co-chair last cycle and finished fourth in the six-way race, 12 votes shy of winning a slot.

Correction: This story was corrected to reflect that Bustos was among the three first elected co-chairs of the DPCC.