Crowley Loss Creates Open Field for Next Generation of Democratic Leaders

Plenty of options, but who wants to — and who’s ready to — step up?

From left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner and Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos attend a rally in Berryville, Va., in July 2017. The event featured a wide swath of Democratic leaders from both chambers. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“Not so fast. Not so fast.”

That was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s initial response — albeit a joking one — Wednesday morning to a reporter who pointed out that “at some point” the California Democrat and her top two lieutenants will no longer be in Congress.

It was a sentiment repeated throughout the day, though with a different meaning, as members reacted to the previous night’s defeat of House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley

When asked how the primary upset would shape the next generation of Democratic leaders, some said it was too soon to evaluate. Others said they are solely focused on Democrats taking back the House.

In the end Pelosi was more forthcoming than the rank-and-file members, but her answer still boiled down to “wait and see.” 

“What it means here is members will choose their leaders as they do. People are elected in the caucus,” she said. “It’s not about me setting somebody up. Just as I was chosen, just breaking ranks and running, others will. And that’s the beauty of this all.”

Until his primary loss, Crowley, 56, was considered the lead candidate to move to the top of the leadership ladder should the caucus’s top three septuagenarian leaders eventually retire: Pelosi, 78, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, 79, and Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn, 77. 

Watch: Pelosi Praises Crowley and His Concession Following Primary Defeat

‘No obvious heir apparent’

“It blows the future prospective leadership races wide open,” Virginia Rep. Gerald E. Connolly said. “There is now no obvious heir apparent. ... Joe was the obvious name in every scenario.”

Connolly was primarily referring to scenarios in which Pelosi, Hoyer or Clyburn retired. But Crowley was also seen well positioned to run for speaker if Democrats won a narrow majority in November and Pelosi struggled to get the 218 votes she’d need to secure the post.

Several candidates have said they won’t support Pelosi. And if she falters, Crowley’s loss potentially creates an opening for Hoyer, who has long held interest in ascending to the top of the Democratic Caucus but continuously declined to challenge Pelosi.

Hoyer swatted off several questions reporters posed to him about leadership, saying those are things that can be addressed after the election. He said his focus is on Democrats taking back the majority.

“I’m just saying we get so immersed in the game that we forget the reason for the game,” he said. 

Still, the dynamics of the nascent incoming freshman class, coupled with growing unrest among some House Democrats about the unyielding power grip at the top, have some members privately predicting more sweeping leadership changes. 

“Obviously, Joe being out of the way helps Nancy and Steny ostensibly, but they’re all whistling past the graveyard now,” said one Democratic member who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “I think you’re going to have a bunch of people show up in November who are like, ‘We got elected to turn this shit over and all of you have to go.’”

Exuding her usual confidence, Pelosi wasn’t worried about the prospect of members running against her for Democratic leader. 

“That’s open season,” she said. “I’ve always had somebody run against me.”

Guaranteed open spot

A prospective race for Democratic leader notwithstanding, the more immediate impact of Crowley’s pending departure is that Democrats are guaranteed to have an open leadership seat to fill in late November, regardless of the outcome of the election. 

If Democrats win the majority, they’ll also have an additional spot, since the position of speaker doesn’t have an exact equivalent for the minority. Both minority and minority caucuses have a “leader” and “whip” position. Democrats have created an assistant leader position for their caucus, which will carry over if they’re in the majority. 

The standing presumption — unless some brave Democrat decides to rattle the ranks and mount an challenge — in the scenario Democrats retake the majority is that Pelosi will be speaker, Hoyer will be majority leader and Clyburn will be majority whip. 

Crowley could have ascended to assistant leader in that scenario, but his departure will leave that open, along with the Democratic Caucus chairman post. 

Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman Linda T. Sánchez could look to move up, creating an opening for her post as well. The California Democrat and former Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairwoman didn’t rule that out on Wednesday. 

Sánchez is likely to go unchallenged for any lower-rung spot. And Crowley’s departure creating a guaranteed opening is certain to set off a scramble of people looking for their opportunity to ascend. 

Lengthy lists

The list of potential candidates depends on whom you ask.

There are some common and relatively obvious ones floated, like Sánchez and the three co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, Reps. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Hakeem Jeffries of New York and David Cicilline of Rhode Island.

Both Bustos and Jeffries deflected questions about their personal ambitions, although the former did note the importance of geographic diversity in leadership and that she’s currently the only one from the Midwest. 

“It’s been my view that the worst thing we could do at this moment is engage in a family feud in a circular firing squad when the American people are counting on us to rebalance our democracy and take back the House,” Jeffries said.

“Any conversation that needs to be had about the future direction of the House Democratic Caucus can occur after November, but I’m firmly committed to the leadership that is currently in place right now,” he added. 

Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, who’s vacating her seat to run for governor in New Mexico, mentioned all the above members in what she noted is “speculation.” She also cited California Rep. Eric Swalwell and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who challenged Pelosi in 2016 but lost.

“There’s a lot of folks in a variety of classes and backgrounds and age groups and genders and ethnicities and races; it’s pretty interesting,” Lujan Grisham said. “I have no idea what will happen.”

Other options

Some members, like Connolly and Connecticut Rep. John B. Larson, said there are many possibilities beyond just the names typically floated in the press. The question, Larson said, is who will want to take on the responsibility. 

While that’s not entirely clear, various caucuses within the larger group of House Democrats will certainly be having discussions about who in their ranks is a viable candidate as they seek to increase their representation at the leadership table. 

“The Progressive Caucus has punched below its weight class previously, and we’re trying to get up to our weight class,” said Wisconsin Rep. Mark Pocan, who co-chairs the group. “We’re the largest value-based caucus, with 78 members.”“We’re doing a major transformation of our 501(c)(3) right now, recreating the Democratic Study Group, and through a bunch of other work we’re positioned to really pass some initiatives should we take the majority,” he added. “And part of that effort means we have to have people in leadership.”

Pocan, who wouldn’t rule out running himself for a leadership position, was floated along with Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal as progressives who would make good leaders by freshman Rep. Ro Khanna of California.Jayapal is also in her first term but is among a group of rising stars in the party. And in the eyes of those like Khanna who believe “the traditional routes to influence may not matter as much” now, she and other green members may have a shot at a leadership post. “If there is a strong progressive running and they have a national base and that national base is communicating with members of Congress, then I think it’s very possible for a progressive to emerge,” Khanna said. 

But others are looking at more traditional routes where important legislative and political experience are built, like committee chairs. 

“We have a great talent bench,” New Jersey Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. said. “I think because of some of the procedures, the talent many times doesn’t come to the top.”

That was a reference to the fact that Democrats don’t have term limits for most of their leadership positions and committee chairmen, creating a power grip that provides little room for new leaders to ascend. 

Many members hold Pascrell’s view that much of the talent within the Democratic Caucus flies under the radar. Crowley was one of the few to emerge.

Pascrell earlier this year had said he’d like to see Crowley as speaker, although he was clear he was not encouraging a coup against Pelosi and he doesn’t anticipate one now. But when the time came, he said, “Joe would’ve been the guy.”

Bridget Bowman contributed to this report. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.