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House Democrats’ racially charged infighting escalates

The clash between Pelosi’s allies and Ocasio-Cortez’s friends intensified with fresh criticisms from both sides

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), center, with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), left, and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), speaks during a House Oversight Committee hearing Friday. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

An all-out racially charged fight within the House Democratic Caucus escalated Saturday when an African American freshman lawmaker said the party doesn’t need “any more black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.”

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) made those comments during a speech at the liberal Netroots Nation conference where she, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) appeared after a week-long clash with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her allies.

The feud started last month, when the three freshman women of color and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) criticized Democrats who supported an emergency funding bill to send more money to the border. The measure passed, but liberal House Democrats said the bill didn’t do enough to protect migrant children held in federal detention centers amid reports of poor conditions. Omar said a vote for it amounted to a vote “to keep kids in cages.”

In response, Pelosi tried to downplay their influence in an interview with the New York Times. “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she told columnist Maureen Dowd. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people, and that’s how many votes they got.”

Ocasio-Cortez accused the speaker of “singling out” the four women of color, calling it “outright disrespectful.”

Things escalated further on Friday night when the official Twitter account for the House Democratic Caucus highlighted a tweet Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, wrote on June 27 criticizing Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), one of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress, for supporting the border bill.

“I don’t think people have to be personally racist to enable a racist system,” Chakrabarti wrote. “And the same could even be said of the Southern Democrats. I don’t believe Sharice is a racist person, but her voters are showing her to enable a racist system.”

The House Democratic Caucus shared that two-week-old tweet Friday night and offered its own commentary.

“Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color? Her name is Congresswoman Davids, not Sharice. She is a phenomenal new member who flipped a red seat blue. Keep Her Name Out Of Your Mouth,” the @HouseDemocrats account tweeted.

Pelosi’s spokesman, Drew Hammill, retweeted it.

Earlier in the week, Pelosi scolded her members in a closed-door meeting, telling them not to tweet their grievances and instead to come to her if they have a problem. It’s part of a delicate balancing act Pelosi must perform. Pelosi’s hold on her speakership runs through districts such as Davids’s, and Republicans will fight hard to win back those seats in 2020.

Follow new representatives Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) as they take their place in the 116th Congress. (Video: Alice Li, Sarah Hashemi, Kayla Epstein, Jayne Orenstein, Reem Akkad/The Washington Post)

Pelosi has beat back demands from liberals on everything from Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal to impeachment, warning that creating friction is not going to help Democrats beat President Trump and keep their House majority.

Hammill defended his retweet, saying he wasn’t defying Pelosi’s wishes because the speaker had been referring to public attacks on Democratic lawmakers, and this was about taking a fellow staffer to task. He said he retweeted the post by the House Democrats defending Davids, who is a lesbian, “in my personal capacity as a gay man who was bullied and beaten in high school.”

Ocasio-Cortez famously beat high-ranking Democrat and Pelosi’s heir apparent, Joseph Crowley, in a stunning Democratic primary upset in 2018 and has said she’d use her considerable star power to help others do the same. She has suggested Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Democratic Caucus that went after her chief of staff, as a target.

Rahm Emanuel, formerly the chief of staff for President Barack Obama, chastised Chakrabarti in a follow-up column by Dowd on Saturday, calling him a “snot-nosed punk.”

“What votes did you get?” Emanuel asked rhetorically. “You really think weakening the speaker is the right strategy to try to get rid of Donald Trump and everything he stands for?”

At the Netroots Nation conference, some of Ocasio-Cortez’s core supporters were asked to weigh in on their fight with Pelosi and moderate Democrats.

“They’re more than four votes. For millions of us, these women of color in Congress represent generations of blood, sweat and tears; of struggle for us to have representation,” said Netroots moderator Aimee Allison. “They represent the best of American democracy. And yet, if you read the news, they’ve faced attacks all year from the right wing and from Democratic leadership.”

Pressley said she didn’t want to discuss “palace intrigue,” but also said she’s not interested in bringing “a chair to an old table.”

“This is the time to shake that table. . . . We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice,” Pressley said, seemingly taking a stab at the Congressional Black Caucus, which is allied with Pelosi. “We don’t need any more black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.”

Pressley denied she was targeting those black leaders. Her spokeswoman, Lina Francis, said afterward that Pressley was trying to make the point that “diversity at the table doesn’t matter if there’s not real diversity in policy.”

Pelosi and Ocasio-Cortez have appeared at previous Netroots conferences, but neither attended this year.

In the past, liberal activists have disrupted speakers with whom they have disagreed. This year, the only interruption came from a group in the audience who waved a banner reading, “Women of color lead, thanks for being #BoldAF.”