Sweet Smell of Succession, House Democrats Edition

The upward mobility of people who played the leadership game

From left, Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, Reps. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., and Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, arrive Thursday for the House Democrats’ leadership elections in the Longworth Building. Bustos went on to win the race for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The Secret to My Succession

For those House Democrats frustrated that Nancy Pelosi won’t provide them (Seth Moulton, Kathleen Rice, Tim Ryan) with a succession plan that entails her leaving and someone, anyone else taking over, consider — wait for it — this week’s House Democratic Caucus leadership elections

Let’s back up for a second. 

Two years ago, after Democrats failed to take the House majority for the fourth straight election, Ryan stepped forward to challenge Pelosi for the minority leader slot, emboldened by frustration that Pelosi and her top lieutenants, Steny H. Hoyer and James E. Clyburn, hadn’t budged in a generation. 

The Ohio Democrat lost, but it wasn’t a completely Pyrrhic effort. Perhaps feeling the heat, Pelosi and her team elevated the relatively obscure Democratic Policy and Communications Committee by making three co-chair positions contested races. Those went to newer members of the caucus: Rhode Island’s David Cicilline, New York’s Hakeem Jeffries and Illinois’ Cheri Bustos

Fast-forward to the present day, and in the wake of the Democrats’ House sweep, those three all moved up in leadership. 

Jeffries won the race for caucus chair, the No. 5 leadership slot, against one of Pelosi’s fellow California Democrats, Barbara Lee. Cicilline got a slot as chairman overseeing the DPCC, a new position this year. And Bustos won a three-way contest for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair

Another change precipitated by the 2016 debacle: House Democrats required the DCCC chair be a contested position, not an appointed one as it was previously. 

Bustos replaces New Mexico’s Ben Ray Luján, who is moving to the No. 4 position in leadership, assistant Democratic leader. Luján had come under some fire after the 2016 returns, but redeemed himself with this year’s wins and was rewarded with a move up. 

So while the folks who threaten to hold up Pelosi’s attempt to become speaker failed to put forward a candidate to so much as challenge her this time, their caucus colleagues were busy moving up the leadership ladder. And while it may feel like it for some Democrats, Pelosi, 78, Hoyer, 79, and Clyburn, 78, won’t be around forever.

Because time is ultimately on the side of people like Luján, 46, Jeffries, 48, Bustos, 57, and Cicilline, 57, if they want to stick it out and accumulate their clout along the way. 

Oh, and the people who took the three positions Jeffries-Bustos-Cicilline vacated to move up? California’s Ted Lieu, 49, Michigan’s Debbie Dingell, 65, and Pennsylvania’s Matt Cartwright, 57. 

Train’s coming. One can usually get on, let it pass or let it run you over. 

This Week’s Podcast


The results of the Mississippi Senate special election runoff were not surprising. The Republican won. The Democrat lost. It is a Republican state after all. But the fact that we were talking about Mississippi in the late stages of the 2018 election season was a surprise. It also brings up questions about political trends in the South, race, history and culture. There is even a Clinton angle! And the not-overwhelming victory of Cindy Hyde-Smith over Democrat Mike Espy portends profound questions for both parties. Roll Call senior political reporter  Simone Pathé and Inside Elections deputy editor Leah Askarinam go deep about the Deep South in the latest Political Theater podcast.

The Kicker

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 29: Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., arrives for the ceremonial swear-in of Rep. Brenda Jones, D-Mich., in the Capitol on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., remember him? He seems to be enjoying himself as the clock ticks down to his retirement at the end of this Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

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