The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Where are we recognized?’: Fudge emerges as potential challenger to Pelosi

After pushing off questions about Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi until after the election, many non-incumbent Democrats are still dodging questions about her. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Rep. Marcia L. Fudge is far from being a national Democratic star. And she knows it.

Fudge isn’t a member of her party’s leadership and she’s now a few years removed from her stint as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. She’s a regular on Cleveland’s East Side rather than MSNBC, and she works out of a small office decorated with a painting of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to serve in Congress.

But Fudge, 66, embraced her relative anonymity on a rainy Thursday morning in her congressional office, casting herself as a symbol of the backbone of her party as she considers challenging longtime party leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) in the race for House speaker.

“Where are we recognized?” Fudge asked in an interview with The Washington Post, as she discussed black women and the House leadership. “If we’re going to have a diverse party, it ought to look like the party.”

Democrats? generational gap grows with return of Speaker Pelosi and longtime deputies

Fudge this week became the first Democrat to publicly acknowledge a possible bid against Pelosi, rupturing party ranks in the afterglow of this month’s midterm elections and Democrats’ return to power in the House — and raising fresh questions about the depth of Pelosi’s support.

Still, Fudge faces an uphill climb in the days ahead as she makes a final decision about the speaker race, with the Congressional Black Caucus sharply divided over Fudge’s potential candidacy and Pelosi and her allies confident that she will eventually capture the gavel even as some Democrats grumble.

“I say it to everybody, ‘Come on in, the water’s warm,’ ” a smiling Pelosi told reporters on Thursday when asked about Fudge’s consideration.

And Fudge’s record is coming under immediate scrutiny, with Pelosi allies privately arguing to on-the-fence Democrats that Fudge’s refusal to co-sponsor the Equality Act, which focuses on civil rights protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, makes her a non-starter.

When asked Thursday about her position, Fudge dismissed the criticism and said that she supports gay rights, but not the way that particular bill was handled.

“They can’t find one vote, not one vote, that’s anti” gay rights, Fudge said. “I just don’t want to insert it into the civil rights bill. It should be a stand-alone bill and I’d support that.”

Fudge, who is close friends with Pelosi critic and fellow Ohio delegation member Tim Ryan (D), is known inside the House for her straightforward demeanor and antiestablishment leanings. She said she is unbothered by the long odds and believes that even her consideration of a bid could rattle Pelosi’s standing.

“Things could change rapidly,” Fudge said on Thursday morning as her phone buzzed nearby. “Over the last 12 hours, I’ve been overwhelmed by the amount of support I’ve received,” guessing that there are “probably closer to 30” Democrats who have signaled that they are willing to oppose Pelosi.

That number of Pelosi defectors is debatable. At least 17 Democrats oppose Pelosi, although Fudge said that many members are keeping their potential opposition under wraps until it becomes evident that she or another contender could be a realistic challenger.

Fudge’s potential bid, which she first disclosed to the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Wednesday evening, could force Democrats to confront issues about race and gender in the party.

“It would say to [the country], ‘This is not business as usual,’ ” Fudge said Thursday when asked about the prospect of becoming the first black female speaker. “Nobody wants the status quo. People are weary of who we are as a party. People don’t know who we are anymore.”

Democrats will hold an internal party vote for speaker on Nov. 28. The full House votes for speaker Jan. 3.

Fudge said her life is a story of being undaunted by people who have told her “no” about her options, from her time in law school, to working as a congressional staffer, to being a mayor and then a House member.

“I represent kids who go to schools that are cold, that can’t eat. I can’t play a game with them. This isn’t a game,” Fudge said.

Fudge said she is building a diverse coalition, talking with allies, moderate Democrats, and newly elected members.

Some of those moderates, such as Ryan and Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), have publicly voiced encouragement.

Moulton, a leader of the resistance to Pelosi, said during an interview on CNN Thursday that Fudge is “the kind of new leader that we need in this party.”

“She’s in touch with middle America. She understands what the American people want,” he said. “She’s a next-generation leader that people will look to and say, ‘That’s the future of our party, that’s the future of our country, and that’s exactly the kind of leader that I want to see as our next speaker.’ ”

Yet the Black Caucus, as a bloc, is not rallying around her possible candidacy. Several prominent members have stepped forward to back Pelosi, including Reps. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

Its chairman, Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.) said on Thursday that if Fudge moves forward, “then I’d probably be for it.” Richmond said he is “not anti-Pelosi, but whatever Marcia does, I’m very pro-Marcia.”

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), another member of the caucus who is running for majority whip, said he spoke with Fudge on Thursday and called her moves a “threat” to the Pelosi leadership team, which he has been part of for more than a decade.

“I’m supporting that team, and that team is Pelosi, [House Minority Whip Steny] Hoyer [D-Md.] and Clyburn.”

Clyburn said he did not ask Fudge to bow out: “I don’t tell Marcia anything.”

Fudge said she’d be a tough foe for President Trump if she chose to run as speaker and won. She said she’d fight him on core Democratic issues — and called him “racist” on Thursday. But she said she would also seek to work with a president she sees as transactional and more about “winning” than ideology.

“I’ve been in government a long time and understand how it works. And he doesn’t. So I’d be happy to help him understand how it works,” she said.

Mike DeBonis and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

Read more at PowerPost