Speaker Nancy Pelosis’ resignation from the leadership could easily have created a power vacuum, with a host of ambitious lawmakers – old and young – publicly competing for a chance to lead House Democrats.
Instead, a new generation – Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, 52, from New York; Katherine Clark, 59, of Massachusetts; and Pete Aguilar, 43, of California — will almost certainly be voted into the top three leadership positions this week without challenge or much fanfare.
There were a few bumps along the way. Some younger members are bitter that 82-year-old South Carolina Majority Whip Jim Clyburn chose to stay in the lead rather than follow Pelosi, also 82, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, 83, into the sunset.
But by and large, Pelosi and her almost certain successor, Jeffries, have been able to orchestrate a smooth transition of the torch from one generation to the next.
Shortly before Pelosi’s announcement Thursday that she was stepping down, Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff signaled that he would not run for leadership of the House of Representatives and would instead focus his efforts on a future Senate bid. This avoided a crushing, protracted battle between Schiff, a top ally of Pelosi, a Californian and prolific fundraiser, and Jeffries, who is poised to become the first black leader of a congressional faction.
Maryland’s Hoyer, who has been the leader since George HW Bush was in office, also said he will not aspire to the top job and will instead return to the powerful Appropriations Committee.
And rather than accept Clark for the No. 2 leadership post, Washington’s Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, decided to run for another term to head her caucus of about 100 House Liberals.
However, Clyburn’s decision to remain at the helm represented a setback for those calling for “new blood” hoping for a clear break with the Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn triumvirate that had ruled Democrats for the past two decades.
Clyburn announced he would be running for his old minority post known as ‘Assistant Leader’, depriving younger members of the opportunity to fill that role. It was considered job #3.
Aguilar originally had his eyes set on the deputy leader position, but Clyburn’s move forced him to run for caucus chairman. Under a new agreement, the vice-chairman will move to No. 4 and the leader of the Democratic Group to No. 3.
That left Rep. Joe Neguse, 38, who had campaigned behind the scenes for the group leader for months, as an underdog.
Some Negus allies urged him to stay in the running and take on Aguilar, frustrated by the knock-on effect caused by Clyburn’s decision. But Pelosi quickly backed the roster of young leaders — Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar — and others followed suit, staving off any possibility of grassroots rebellion and a chaotic leadership struggle between Aguilar and Neguse.
“There are a lot of angry people. The feeling is that Speaker Pelosi and Leader Hoyer had the grace to step aside and people cannot believe Clyburn is not ready to do so. There’s real resentment there about the impact of the vote,” a younger House Democrat told NBC News.
“There is disbelief at the idea that staying in power is simply a matter of staying in power – not that there is any particular goal in sight. It’s hard to believe we’re turning the page.”
A Clyburn spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. Clyburn has called Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar “our new generation of Democratic leaders” but has not interfered in the Neguse’s situation.
A potential emergency exit hatch surfaced last week. Neguse informed his colleagues on November 21 that he would officially drop his candidacy to chair the caucus and run for the chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC), the messaging arm of House Democrats, if the DPCC Operation could be restructured.
Soon after, Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar informed their members in a joint letter that a rule change would be offered this week to do just that: revise the DPCC to include an elected chair, likely Neguse, and three elected co-chairs among them to have.
Some Members have referred to this post as ‘Chair of Chairs’ and it is a structure that existed before.
Neguse would almost certainly be the favorite to win this race. Neguse, the son of Eritrean immigrants and the first black congressman elected from Colorado, saw his national profile rise after serving as Democratic prosecutor during former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial.
For the past two years, he has served as one of four co-chairs of the DPCC, along with Representatives Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, and Ted Lieu of California; Dingell and Lieu are now among at least four candidates running for vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus.
“For the past two years, I have worked with my fellow DPCC co-chairs to engage each member of our various political groups in developing our message framework,” Neguse said in a letter to colleagues on Monday.
“This message of putting people over politics became an essential tool for our members as we defended our democracy and defied historical norms by limiting Republican gains in this year’s election.”
Alongside Dingell and Lieu, Rep. Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty of Ohio are running for vice chair of the caucus. It’s the #5 spot, seen as a stepping stone to other top leadership roles.
The race for leadership of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Democrats’ campaign arm, for the 2024 cycle will feature a duel between two Californians, Rep. Tony Cardenas and Ami Bera.