Brooklyn bridge: How two New York City Democrats could be top congressional leaders

It was not clear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would stay in leadership or move on when incoming House members gathered at the Capitol for freshmen orientation last week.

“I hope so,” replied Rep.-elect Glenn Ivey, D-Md., when asked if Pelosi should make another run at a leadership post. “The Bulls would still love to have Michael Jordan. I’d still love to have Nancy Pelosi, for sure.”

The Chicago Bulls no longer have Jordan. Or Scottie Pippen. Or Dennis Rodman.

Next year, House Democrats will go to battle without Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., will remain on board, prospectively in the position as “assistant leader.” However, that slot is outside the top tier of the House Democratic leadership hierarchy.

Do not forget, Jordan actually retried twice. 

Pelosi is 82, and it is doubtful that she plays minor league baseball, or makes some comeback into the leadership ranks, à la Jordan.

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“A new day is dawning on the horizon,” said Pelosi on the House floor in her valedictory. “The hour has come for a new generation to lead the Democratic Caucus that I so deeply respect.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer listens as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer listens as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

However, Pelosi will remain as a rank-and-file member. The same with Hoyer, as both just won re-election to their House seats and will stay on board.

It is not unprecedented for senior Congressional leaders to return to rank-and-file ranks after serving in leadership.

Republicans lost control of the House in 2006. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., indicated he would not seek a leadership post for 2007. Hastert remained in office for slightly less than a year before resigning.

Former House Majority and Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., stepped aside from his leadership slot in 2002. Gephardt remained on board as a rank-and-file member as he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. In fact, it was Gephardt’s decision to move away from leadership which gave Pelosi the opportunity to matriculate from Minority Whip to Minority Leader in early 2003. Pelosi led House Democrats as either speaker or minority leader ever since.

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Most Republicans are happy to see Pelosi go. However, as Republicans encounter the prospects of a narrow majority next year, they secretly wish the party had someone with Pelosi’s political and vote-counting acumen on their side. Pelosi’s hallmark was passing major bills like Obamacare or the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, with only a vote or two to spare. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., both in line to lead House Republicans next year, have yet to demonstrate such legislative finesse. 

Pro tip: Watch to see how a potential Speaker McCarthy handles an “Office of the Former Speaker” for Pelosi.” Pelosi and McCarthy have a limited relationship and there is enmity between the two. In fact, McCarthy did not even head to the floor to listen to Pelosi’s retirement address. Scalise did. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., speaks at an event early Wednesday morning, Nov. 9, 2022, in Washington. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., speaks at an event early Wednesday morning, Nov. 9, 2022, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

After Hastert stepped aside, Pelosi afforded the Illinois Republican a small office near the House floor out of courtesy. This was years before it became public that Hastert did time for bank fraud. Hastert is the highest-serving U.S. official to ever go to jail. At his sentencing, it became public that Hastert molested multiple teenage boys when he was a high school history teacher and wrestling coach.

However, at Pelosi’s departure, even some Republicans applauded the outgoing speaker.

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“It’s really a changing of the guard. It’s history being made. In other countries, you see tanks rolling down the road in the middle of something like this. Everybody’s freaking out. But it’s democracy. It’s a beautiful thing,” said Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn. “We don’t agree on anything. And I went up and talked to her and she hugged my neck.”

It was long thought that Pelosi’s departure would trigger a seismic shock on Capitol Hill. Her departure certainly registers on the political Richter Scale. However, the transition from Pelosi and Hoyer to a younger generation of leaders was velvet-smooth compared to what some political observers forecast for years.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries is poised to succeed Pelosi next year and become House Minority Leader. Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., is slated to become Minority Whip. House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., will lead the caucus.

However, Pelosi’s departure presents Republicans with another opportunity to demonize the House’s top Democrat. Democrats are now trading in a “San Francisco liberal” for a “New York City liberal.” Jeffries may be the right lawmaker to lead Democrats, presumably running unopposed for the party’s top post. However, there is a reason why House Democrats now struggle to elect members in middle America. It was not that long ago that Democrats held a number of House seats in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota and South Dakota. Now, those Democrats are hard to find. The party is now bi-coastal and oriented toward a progressive, urban base.

Republicans will burn a lot of political capital on efforts to introduce their version of Jeffries to voters.

“He’s even further to the left of Nancy Pelosi,” said incoming House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, R-Ky., on Fox. “This is further proof that the Democrat party has been taken over by the far left.”

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However, political analysts disagree with Comer’s assessment. Jeffries worked with Jared Kushner on prison reform and has squabbled with the “Squad.”

“I think progressives kind of view Jeffries as a kind of Wall Street guy. A kind of corporate Democrat,” said David Cohen of the University of Akron. “And I don’t think he’s particularly well trusted [by progressives].”

House Democratic Conference Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said Americans will feel effects from the Inflation Reduction Act on health costs, prescription costs and energy costs. 

House Democratic Conference Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said Americans will feel effects from the Inflation Reduction Act on health costs, prescription costs and energy costs.  (Tyler Olson/Fox News)

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) embraced the promotion of Jeffries as the first minority to lead a party in Congress.

“He’s been mentored by Jim Clyburn and I think he is ready,” said CBC Chairwoman Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio. “He is brilliant. He is timely and people follow him.”

However, the decision of Pelosi and Hoyer to remain as Members of Congress could present a problem for Jeffries. There may be the temptation to become political “helicopter parents,” but Pelosi has a way of saying things in a direct fashion which could impact the new leaders.

A longtime Pelosi aide once told a story of how another female aide came into the office wearing bright red shoes.

“Those shoes are red,” declared Pelosi.

Pelosi only commented on the color of the shoes, technically not indicating whether she liked or disliked the footwear. The comment revealed it was clear that Pelosi did not think much of the aide’s shoes.

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It is doubtful that Pelosi and Hoyer would ever be discourteous in their counsel to Jeffries or overstep their bounds. Both had been the top Democrats in Congress for two decades. That does not dissipate immediately. Both must be guarded in their comments and actions, lest they be interpreted as undercutting the new leaders. Additionally, rank-and-file Democrats must resist the temptation to run to Pelosi and Hoyer with their problems and instead hit up Jeffries and Clark.

Former Senate Majority and Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was said to have a “Byrd problem” when Daschle assumed control of House Democrats in 1995. Late Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd, D-W.V., stepped aside from his leadership post in1989. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, succeeded Byrd, but Daschle initially struggled under Byrd’s shadow in the first few months of his tenure.

All Daschle could do was stand by on the floor late one night in February 1995 when late Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., abruptly called off a vote on a Constitutional balanced budget amendment because it lacked the votes. Byrd seized the floor ahead of Daschle and upbraided Dole. 

President Biden walks with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., at the Capitol in Washington.

President Biden walks with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., at the Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

At the time, Daschle was less than two months into the job. It was as though Byrd was saying that going toe-to-toe with Dole was not a job for a rookie just called up from the minors. The situation required a seasoned Senate master like Byrd.

Also, Congressional Democrats also face a “Beastie Boys” conundrum. Both Jeffries and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., hail not only from the same city but the same borough of New York City, Brooklyn.

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“No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” Republicans are certain to highlight this dynamic. The Brooklyn duo of Jeffries and Schumer is emblematic of where the Democratic Party stands on a host of issues, but it does not help the party speak to the middle of the country, where it now struggles to resonate with voters.

It remains to be seen if Jeffries and Schumer can bridge that divide.

However, it will have to be a “Brooklyn Bridge.” 

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