For Ambitious Democrats, No Clear Path Forward

Posted March 2, 2012 at 4:45pm

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) frantically travels the country as the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) represents the Democratic Caucus at nearly every negotiating table on high-profile fiscal issues. But neither they nor other rising stars in the Caucus have emerged as the most likely leader following a retirement by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

The lack of a frontrunner in a would-be leadership fight, still unlikely at this point, has some party elders irked that no one has organized the kind of operation Pelosi used to win her first leadership bid back in 2001.

“That next generation has the skill sets that fit the leadership mold so well, but somebody has to make a move, and we haven’t seen anybody positioning yet,” one veteran Democrat said. “You run a risk if you’re not positioning yourself, and you’ll end up in an all-out sprint in a marathon.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) recently staffed up, putting to rest any suggestion he is considering retirement. Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) is term-limited in his role, but some presume he could try to make a play for another leadership job. Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) appears safe in his job, although a retirement by the 10-term lawmaker could make room at the top.

Potential successors to Pelosi and those top Democratic leaders, however, contend now is not the time to organize, given that there are no spots open in the party’s top ranks and what positions might become available largely hinge on the 2012 elections.

“I really do believe, especially when you’re in the minority, your focus is on getting there,” Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra said of the upcoming elections. “And then I think things will become clear, the dust will settle. I don’t think it’ll be a total uncertainty to see what rises up.”

The Californian predicted that if Democrats win the House in November, “most people in the Democratic Caucus, I believe, will be prepared to ask Nancy Pelosi to serve again as Speaker.”

Pelosi has not hinted at retirement even though some Congressional observers suspect she might after the elections. Of course, onlookers assumed she would step down after the bruising midterm elections only to watch her line up the votes to be Minority Leader.

Pelosi’s first foray into leadership came after what seemed an unlikely bid for Whip against Hoyer. Pelosi won that position in the fall of 2001 with the help of the late Rep. John Murtha (Pa.). Pelosi sought the support of her numerous California colleagues and fellow women in that election, building a coalition to protect her place in leadership for the next decade.

That Whip race should be instructive for the young and emerging leaders now, a Democratic source suggested.

“It’s not something you ask permission for. You step up and you take it,” the Democratic source said.

Some Democrats contend that younger Members are doing their part to propel their careers. Those same sources also complain that Pelosi’s grip on the Caucus makes it difficult for anyone to build a coalition, although they concede it’s nearly impossible to compete with Pelosi’s fundraising abilities and deep-seated relationships.

Wasserman Schultz is an impressive fundraiser in her own right, raising more than $8 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2010 election cycle. Nevertheless, she was passed up to chair the campaign arm this election cycle and instead has forged her own way at the DNC. During her first nine months on the job, Wasserman Schultz has traveled to 29 states and done more than 400 events. While she is building a national donor base, Democratic aides caution that her work at the DNC won’t necessarily translate to votes in a leadership race driven much more by personal relationships.

Asked about her leadership ambitions, Wasserman Schultz said she is focused on the “re-election of Barack Obama and making sure that my constituents still agree that I’m the best person to represent them.”

DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) has won praise from colleagues for recruiting more than 70 candidates to run this cycle and for consistently outraising the National Republican Congressional Committee. In a statement, he was equally reserved about a future leadership bid.

“My focus is on the families in my district and on our ‘Drive to 25’ campaign to win the House,” he said.

Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), frequently mentioned as a future leadership candidate, serves as the DCCC’s finance chairman and has raised close to $6 million for the political arm this cycle. He lost to Larson in a 2006 bid for Caucus vice chairman.

“I’ve never enjoyed sitting on the sidelines, especially when so much is at stake. We’ve got a majority to win back, gavels to win back and, most importantly, an agenda for working Americans that needs to be enacted. I don’t know what the future holds for me personally, but I do know the future needs to include a Democratic majority in the House,” he said when asked about his ambitions.

Van Hollen is a former DCCC chairman and was Assistant to the Speaker before Democrats lost the majority in 2010. Now, he is carving out a niche as the party’s spokesman on fiscal issues. While colleagues praise his work on that front, they question the depth of his relationship with colleagues compared with other would-be leadership candidates. Still, allies say Van Hollen’s work on budget matters could help him bridge some of those gaps.

“You can’t be too presumptive around here. You have to also do your own job as well as you can and excel in your piece of the world,” a Democratic strategist said.