Updated 4:57 p.m. | In a triumph for the seniority system and a blow to Nancy Pelosi’s clout, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey beat Rep. Anna G. Eshoo of California in a hard-fought race for ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
Eshoo had Pelosi’s support and won the backing of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee Tuesday afternoon, but the full caucus early Wednesday morning voted to give the plum assignment to Pallone.
The final tally was 100-90.
The battle to win the ranking member slot has been ongoing since the end of January, when the panel’s reigning top Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, announced he would retire by the year’s end. Pallone, the current No. 3 Democrat on the committee, was the first to announce he wanted to succeed Waxman; Eshoo, the current No. 5, made her decision to compete for the seat a few days later.
The next 10 months were a flurry of jockeying, positioning, raising money and doling out checks. When Minority Leader Pelosi inserted herself into the fray by publicly endorsing her closest friend and fellow Californian, the fight to become the ranking member grew ugly, with members picking sides based on factors other than just who they thought was best for the job.
Some lawmakers were put off by Pelosi’s attempt influence the outcome when party leaders most often stay neutral; House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland came out early in support of Pallone, but worked on his behalf behind-the-scenes rather than in front of the curtain.
Other members were energized by Pelosi’s involvement, however, with Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., saying anybody would be grateful to have her support. Many members clung to the seniority system, while others saw an opportunity to revisit the long-held precedent that the person who has been around the longest should be rewarded accordingly.
“America is great,” said Rep. Bobby L. Rush, D-Ill., who falls in seniority between Pallone and Eshoo but chose not to run for the ranking member slot.
Rush is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which by and large fought fiercely on Pallone’s behalf. For the CBC, the seniority system is the best way to ensure that its members, still representing a fraction of the full House Democratic Caucus, don’t get passed up for opportunities in leadership.
“Democracy works,” Rush told CQ Roll Call following the announcement of the election results. “And the seniority system works. America is a beautiful country, Congress is a great institution and seniority means that me and my children and generations to come will look upon this race and see that [seniority] is the most powerful weapon that we have.”
Speaking to reporters after the race was called, Pallone downplayed the tension between his team and Eshoo’s in the 10-month lead-up to Wednesday’s vote.
“Look, there are always going to be squabbles. It’s a campaign, it’s like any campaign, but, you know, I think both sides really worked hard to make it positive in terms of … talking about what we could contribute rather than be critical for the other member.”
Near the end of his remarks, Eshoo sidled up beside Pallone and the two stood arm-in-arm to show their unity.
“We are going to be team, leading the rest of the team, and to lead the Democratic Party to be the party of prosperity for the future of our entire country,” Eshoo said, smiling. “This is for our country. This is not something that is internal to a caucus. This is about our country. So I congratulate Frank with all of my heart. We had a spirited, respectful race. I’m proud of him.”
Both lawmakers rebuffed suggestions that the race was actually a referendum on rank-and-file discontent with Pelosi, though Pallone’s fellow New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell didn’t have trouble making the insinuation.
“One can make the argument that she overdid it,” Pascrell said. “One may make the argument that she overdid in terms of the letter she sent out, on the other hand, she had every right to do it — she didn’t break any laws.”
In the end, Pelosi had kind words for Pallone.
“I congratulate Frank Pallone on a hard fought campaign and congratulate Anna Eshoo for raising the issue of innovation to a level that all Members appreciate,” said Pelosi in a statement. “We look forward to working with both of these Members as we move forward.”
Matt Fuller contributed to this report.