Donna F. Edwards, a Democrat, represented Maryland’s 4th District in the U.S. House from 2008 to 2017.
Dear newly elected House Democrats,
Congratulations on your historic victory. I hope you take time to reflect on how and why you won. But not too much time. Your first big decision awaits you — your choice for speaker of the House.
I remember when I was sent to Congress in a special election in 2008, having beaten an eight-term incumbent for whom then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi had campaigned. I was the progressive champion. I brought to the table a 20-year career as a nonprofit lawyer, advocate for women and progressive philanthropist. I was in no mood to support Pelosi and the “corporate Democrats” she represented. I was wrong.
As soon as I was sworn in by the first female speaker, I began to appreciate the power of that role and her understanding of it. Once the election was over, it was over; I was her member. First, she wanted to know my aspirations and how she could help me achieve them.
Then, I watched as she paid close attention to the individual needs of the Democrats, especially those from vulnerable districts. You will need this attention — you will need Speaker Pelosi to protect you from harmful votes and to advance a legislative agenda with priorities that you can sell back home. And, importantly (until you reform the system), you will need Speaker Pelosi to raise for the 2020 cycle at least the $135.6 million that she raised for this one — including $129 million that went directly into the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, about half of what the DCCC took in for the 2018 cycle. I know money isn’t everything, but it sure helps to hire a good manager, pay for a strong field program and communicate with your voters. It will help to retain your majority. Others may step forward to say they can do these things as well as Pelosi. Trust me, they cannot.
As have many of the new members entering the 116th Congress, I promised to deliver on health care. With Democrats controlling the White House, the House and the Senate in 2009, I assumed it would be smooth sailing. It was not; and this is where I get to Pelosi’s battle-tested leadership. I watched as she balanced the measured desires of Barack Obama’s White House with the interests of all the factions within the Democratic caucus. Some of the fiercest opposition to the insurance-based approach of the White House came from the progressive caucus, of which I was a part. We lost then to the White House and to Pelosi, but that’s not the point of this story, and you will get to revisit that decision.
In those negotiations, I watched Pelosi, the tactician. She held scores of meetings, back-to-back, day into night. She juggled phone calls — House and Senate leaders, Cabinet secretaries, the president. All to get us to “yes.” She paid the most attention to vulnerable members; Pelosi knew they would pay the highest price for doing the right thing, and they did. When all the men in the room wanted to give up — after the nose-dive in approval ratings, media vitriol and unrelenting protests — Pelosi started counting votes and doing the kind of bare-knuckles work that was needed.
Later, as minority leader, she got to “yes” with the Trump White House on a budget deal to prevent a government shutdown and protect Democratic priorities. She held the Democratic caucus together for one vote after another to stand up against House Republicans, including their efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, as well as organizing unanimous opposition to the GOP tax plan. You ran on those issues in your elections. Pelosi engaged in strategic coordination with outside groups to hammer home the health-care message to deliver victory on Nov. 6.
I know some of you promised to vote against Pelosi as speaker. I urge the rest of you to think twice before rejecting the most qualified person, at the most important time, for the most important job. There will be plenty of time for a change in leadership to a new generation, at every level; that is inevitable. I urge your leaders, including Pelosi, to use this important time to cultivate new leaders who are prepared to build on her legacy.
You will have an opportunity to improve the Affordable Care Act, pass an infrastructure bill, manage an inquiry into Russian interference in our elections — and you will need Pelosi as speaker to get these things done. If you believe in oversight and accountability for the Trump administration, if you want an enduring majority, you need Pelosi as speaker.
Lastly, despite what they say publicly, the Republicans’ nightmare is a Speaker Pelosi running circles around President Trump and the fringe Republicans who remain in the House. Don’t blow it.
P.S. Did I mention that Pelosi presided over the largest Democratic victory since Watergate, with the most diverse caucus ever, including the most women ever? And you’re going to dump the woman?