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Democrats compete to do ‘unglamorous’ work in House leadership posts

Shuffle caused by Pelosi, Hoyer decisions leave open positions

Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, is vying to be the vice chair of the Democratic Caucus after leading the Congressional Black Caucus.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, is vying to be the vice chair of the Democratic Caucus after leading the Congressional Black Caucus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With promises to do “hard, unglamorous” work, help colleagues connect with constituents and navigate an ever changing media landscape, House Democrats are competing for open posts in the party’s leadership.

The contested posts that will be settled Wednesday include Democratic Caucus vice chair, where four candidates are vying for the fifth-ranking leadership spot. There are also seven people running for three spots co-chairing the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the caucus’s messaging arm. 

In addition to the leadership elections, the Democratic Caucus organizing meeting Wednesday will include votes on member proposals to change various caucus rules, including a long divisive proposal to implement term limits for the party’s committee leaders. That organizing meeting is expected to spill into Thursday.

Several of the rules proposals would impact the leadership elections and are expected to be voted on before the contested races. For example, Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. is proposing to implement ranked choice voting for the leadership elections. Under current rules, contested races where none of the candidates earn more than 50 percent move to subsequent ballot(s), knocking off the lowest vote-getter until a majority winner prevails.

New top leaders

The caucus will have new leaders in the top spots after Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer announced they would not seek leadership positions in the next Congress. Both will remain in the House. 

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the current caucus chair, and Massachusetts Rep. Katherine M. Clark, the current assistant speaker, are running unchallenged to replace Pelosi and Hoyer as the top two Democrats. Democrats will lose the speaker post when House control flips in January, so Jeffries is running for minority leader and Clark for minority whip.

Unlike Pelosi and Hoyer, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina is not ready to step down from leadership altogether, even though he’s giving up his No. 3 ranking position to make way for a “new generation” of leaders.

Clyburn is running unopposed for assistant Democratic leader, a position the caucus first created for him in 2010 to end a messy race with Hoyer for the No. 2 post.

The Democratic Caucus is reordering the current leadership rankings to elevate Democratic Caucus chair to the No. 3 position and moving assistant Democratic leader down to the No. 4 spot. 

California Rep. Pete Aguilar, currently the caucus vice chair, is running uncontested for caucus chair after Colorado Rep. Joe Neguse dropped his bid for that position and declared he would run for DPCC chair, which oversees the three co-chairs. 

The structure of the DPCC has changed several times since it first became an elected leadership position in 2016 with three co-chairs instead of one appointed chair. In 2018, Democrats added a chair position to oversee the co-chairs, but they got rid of it in 2020 and changed the number of co-chairs to four. Now the caucus is prepared to adopt a rule change restoring the so-called chair of chairs positions to avoid a Neguse-Aguilar contest for caucus chair and to go back to three co-chairs. 

Caucus vice chair

Four Democrats are running to replace Aguilar as vice chair: Reps. Joyce Beatty of Ohio, Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Ted Lieu of California.

Dingell and Lieu are the only two currently serving on the elected leadership team as DPCC co-chairs. 

Dingell promised in a letter to colleagues that she would put in long hours “doing the hard, unglamorous work that true leadership requires.” She touted her candor as an asset as she noted Democrats need to do a better job earning the support of working class families and not shying away from speaking about issues polls claim are contentious. 

Lieu’s letter identified specific proposals he’d like to implement, including providing caucus translation services and starting a professional development training series on topics like cross examining witnesses in hearings, preparing for television interviews and driving engagement on social media. If elected to the No. 5 spot, he would be the highest-ranking Asian American Pacific Islander ever in House Democratic leadership.

Beatty is outgoing chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and if she wins would be the first Black woman elected to House Democratic leadership since Shirley Chisholm in 1977. Beatty touts her diversity and inclusion credentials, which includes her work on the CBC and her role as a founding member of the Elect Democratic Women PAC. 

Dean served as an impeachment manager when the House presented arguments before the Senate after charging former President Donald Trump with inciting the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection. She also is a member of the two largest ideological caucuses, the New Democrat Coalition and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She told her colleagues in a letter she can share her experience developing innovative ways to reach constituents. 

DCCC chair 

The caucus will consider a rule change to how they select their campaign chief. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair was an appointed role until the caucus voted in 2016 to make it an elected post. 

An amendment, offered by Reps. Suzan DelBene of Washington, Brad Schneider of Illinois, and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, would largely return the DCCC chair to an appointed role by allowing the Democratic leader to nominate a candidate, who the rule specifies does not have to be an existing DCCC member. While other candidates could run against the leader’s nominee, they would need at least five members to support a petition for such a challenge. 

The DCCC chair for the 2022 cycle, New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, was one of six Democratic incumbents who lost his reelection bid earlier this month even as the party outperformed midterm expectations. His predecessor, Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, also faced a tough contest while serving as DCCC chair in 2020, and there’s a desire to avoid a similar dynamic moving forward. 

The two declared candidates for DCCC chair, California Reps. Tony Cárdenas and Ami Bera, are from districts seen as safe for Democrats in 2024. 

Jeffries has remained neutral on the proposed rule change and has not indicated who he would nominate if it were adopted. 

DPCC chair and co-chairs 

None of the current four DPCC co-chairs is running again, although Neguse is seeking the new DPCC chair position. The other three, Dingell, Lieu and Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright, are running for other leadership spots. 

That leaves the race for the three co-chair positions wide open. The seven Democrats running are: Veronica Escobar of Texas, Adriano Espaillat of New York, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Dean Phillips of Minnesota, Lauren Underwood of Illinois, Susan Wild of Pennsylvania and Nikema Williams of Georgia.

Houlahan and Espaillat both ran for DPCC co-chair in 2018, finishing just out of contention in the fourth and fifth spots respectively. Houlahan had just been elected to the House a few weeks before that leadership race and finished only 12 votes shy of securing one of the co-chair roles. 

In addition to the traditional letter to colleagues, Houlahan released videos in English and Spanish making her pitch. She said she wants to serve on the DPCC because of her communications background and is not planning to use it as a steppingstone to run for a higher leadership position in the future. Houlahan’s office has won awards for constituent engagement, transparency and innovative social media use. 

Espaillat, who is bilingual, cites his experience communicating across diverse media outlets like Univision, Telemundo and other Spanish-dominant venues and plans to help offices develop multilingual communication strategies. He also wants to provide Democrats with creative communications resources, like an interactive digital map that his office created to allow constituents to pin areas to which they think federal infrastructure funding should be directed. 

Escobar, elected in 2018, served as the freshman leadership representative in her first term. Instead of seeking a leadership role in her second term, she ran for Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair but lost. She wants to step up Democratic efforts to counter what she calls Republican misinformation, especially in Latino heavy communities like her El Paso-area district. 

Underwood and Williams running could help ensure a Black woman is elected to leadership in some position this year — should Beatty’s bid for vice chair fail – after other Black women who’ve run for leadership posts in recent years have lost. 

In 2018, Underwood became the youngest Black woman ever elected to Congress. She is also the youngest candidate in the DPCC co-chair race. The 36-year-old, who was part of the Frontline program for vulnerable incumbents, touts her skills navigating the media landscape and offered to provide members and their staffs with resources and coaching to message successfully. 

Williams wants to develop targeted digital and regional messaging strategies to help Democrats meet voters where they are. Her campaign focuses on three D’s – digitize, decentralize and diversify.

Phillips hand-delivered succulents to every House Democrat’s office touting his campaign theme, “Let’s grow.” He said Democrats need to be innovative in their messaging approach and he aims to “build a legitimate world class marketing organization to build the brand and promote good policy.”

Wild touts her messaging skills as a big reason why she was able to survive a tough reelection contest this year that most political forecasters handicapped against her. She said she can help other Democrats deploy similar messaging strategies, such as weekly constituent newsletters, targeted email blasts and one-on-one outreach. 

Two Democrats are running for caucus leadership representative, Texan Lizzie Fletcher and Californian Sara Jacobs. The position is reserved for a member who has served five or fewer terms, and only members who fit that description can vote in this election. 

Fletcher, who is finishing her second term, plans to hold regular meetings with the five junior classes, work to empower those members and expand their opportunities for serving the caucus.

Jacobs, who is 33 and finishing her first term, said as the second-youngest member of the Democratic Caucus she wants to continue uplifting young voices. She plans to host conversations and build community among the members who’ve served five or fewer terms so they can develop shared priorities that she can advocate for at the leadership table. 

The Democratic members-elect who won House races for the first time in November get to elect a freshman leadership representative. It is not clear who is running. 

Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., is proposing a caucus rule change to add a battleground leadership representative to the elected leadership team. Her proposal would only allow battleground members — defined as a returning DCCC Frontline member or incoming DCCC Red to Blue member from the just completed cycle — to run and to vote for the position.

If that’s adopted, Cartwright said he is planning to run for the position. Reelected by a margin of less than 3 points, Cartwright said it would be a “good fit” since he’s already been advocating for battleground Democrats in leadership through his DPCC co-chair role. 

Cartwright said he sent a letter to battleground Democrats about his intention to run for the role and talked to some directly. He has not heard of anyone else interested in running. Lee’s office did not return a request for comment on whether she would run for the position she’s seeking to create.

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