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Cardoza-Pelosi Relationship Turns Chilly

Rep. Dennis Cardoza suspected that his January vote against fellow California Democrat Nancy Pelosi for Speaker might cost him the informal leadership post he’s held for more than three years. He was right.

But even though Cardoza wasn’t surprised Pelosi didn’t want him back at the leadership table this Congress, he said he was still disappointed that she never told him of her decision. Cardoza, a Blue Dog Democrat, had served as an unofficial liaison between moderates and top Democrats, a position that got him into the room during high-level talks.

Cardoza said he spoke to Pelosi last week for the first time since the Jan. 5 vote in which he and 18 other moderate Democrats backed someone else for Speaker.

“The Speaker has not ever called and told me I’m out of the room,” Cardoza said during a recent interview in his Capitol office. “I assumed when I didn’t vote for her that that may happen, but I am a little disappointed that she has not called me and told me that we’ve been disinvited.”

Cardoza, a self-described “unrepentant moderate,” declined to go into specifics but said he had talked to other members of Pelosi’s leadership team about her decision. Cardoza, whose Central Valley-based district is not far from Pelosi’s in San Francisco, also surrendered his seat on the Rules Committee this year, a panel that operates as an extension of the leadership. 

Cardoza’s estrangement of sorts from Pelosi underscores how deep some moderates’ disenchantment with Pelosi’s leadership has become. Many moderates urged Pelosi to step down in the wake of the Nov. 2 elections that cost Democrats the majority, believing they needed new leadership at the top.

For more than three years, the then-Speaker relied on Cardoza to be a voice for moderates in the Caucus. Pelosi, a liberal, has always had closer ties to her left-leaning colleagues. 

But since the midterm elections, which thinned the Blue Dogs’ ranks by roughly half, tensions between Pelosi and many moderates in the Caucus have escalated. 

Pelosi’s allies insist she is making efforts to reach out to moderates and is soliciting their feedback as she charts a path forward for House Democrats, but Cardoza said he and other Blue Dogs feel that their concerns have “fallen on deaf ears.”

“There’s a lot of us who are feeling very alienated,” he said. “The Blue Dogs and the moderates don’t feel like they’re being reached out to at all.” 

Pelosi’s backers, meanwhile, point out that she tapped a Blue Dog, Rep. Henry Cuellar, as a vice chairman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, a role that gives the Texas Democrat a prominent stake in coordinating messaging strategy and internal communications. 

And a Democratic source pointed out that three Blue Dogs — Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Jim Matheson (Utah) and Heath Shuler (N.C.) — were assigned to the Steering Committee this year. A Pelosi spokesman declined to comment for this article. 

Cardoza said he had not spoken to Pelosi at all since the floor vote for Speaker, until last week when he ran into her at the New York City hotel where Blue Dogs had gathered for their annual issues conference. 

“It was somewhat awkward,” he said. “We talked about the weather, I think.” 

Given their once-close relationship, Cardoza’s vote against Pelosi for Speaker raised some eyebrows. He said he decided to swap votes with another California Democrat — Rep. Jim Costa — rather than support Shuler or another Democrat “to send a strong message.” 

Shuler first challenged Pelosi for Minority Leader in November, securing 43 votes. He later waged another symbolic challenge to her during the January floor vote for Speaker. Of the 19 defections to Pelosi’s leadership, 11 called out Shuler’s name on the floor.

Deciding to buck Pelosi was not an easy call, Cardoza said, and was based on Pelosi’s response to the election, not the election results themselves.

“I hadn’t decided not to vote for her on Election Day,” he said. “It was how I saw the Caucus move after the election that caused me to reach the level of discontent to cast my vote the way I did.” 

“I felt that there was no soul-searching about why it happened after the election,” he explained. “I felt like the Speaker — because so many of the moderates had been defeated — that she tacked and the Caucus tacked hard left. It was so unrepresentative of what the message was of the American people and of my district, that I couldn’t — in good conscience and good faith — any longer support her candidacy.” 

But Cardoza said he’d been frustrated even before the elections because he felt the feedback he gave in leadership meetings was discarded. 

“I believe very strongly that when you’re given that role, you speak the truth to power, and I said a lot of things in those meetings that weren’t necessarily popular or they weren’t groupthink,” he said. 

For example, Cardoza said he “was very direct about how I felt like we weren’t effectively dealing with the job problem and the housing problem.” 

Going forward, Cardoza, who is co-chairing the Blue Dogs’ political action committee this cycle, said he shared the concerns expressed by some of his fellow Blue Dogs who have said it could be tougher to win back the House with Pelosi in charge. 

“It is generally the feeling of the moderates that they will have a very tough time recruiting,” he said. “In most of these districts, they saw the campaigns were run against Nancy almost as much against the other candidates. … We won all the liberal seats. We can’t win back the House unless the moderates come back.” 

Blue Dogs plan to launch their own recruiting effort in conjunction with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he said, predicting that the Blue Dog PAC would garner strong support from the business community between now and 2012. But retirements also could complicate matters. 

“If moderates continue to be marginalized in the Caucus, that’s a real problem, and it may lead to retirements,” he said. “There’s no question about it.”

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