The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democratic rising stars in the House grab lower rungs of power as veterans retain higher slots

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) speaks to reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill after his election as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) had just won a narrow election Wednesday to a mid-level post in Democratic leadership and suddenly realized that he had to get to work immediately.

“It’s like the shortest transition in American history,” Jeffries told reporters.

As the newly elected House Democratic Caucus chairman, Jeffries had to oversee the remaining leadership races stretching across Wednesday and Thursday — many of which would bring other junior Democrats into leadership posts.

Labeled “rising stars” for several years now, these Democrats are grabbing the lower rungs of power in the new House majority as three elder statesmen cling to power on top of the caucus.

In many ways, these leadership elections serve as the informal start in the next race for House speaker — even before Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has formally locked down the necessary votes to return to the rostrum overseeing the House.

Pelosi, who easily won her party’s nomination Wednesday, now must convince almost 20 more holdouts to support her claim on House speaker before the formal Jan. 3 roll call that opens the new Congress. Assuming her victory, Pelosi, 78, has called this upcoming time a “transitional” moment. After some undefined period, she — presumably along with Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), 79, and James E. Clyburn (S.C.), 78, who won the No. 2 and No. 3 leadership posts — expect to walk off the stage.

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That’s what has this new crop of lieutenants itching to show their worth in their new posts, thinking that within a few years they will be asking their colleagues for promotions into one of those top posts.

“This certainly is an opportunity for people who have been elected to these leadership positions to demonstrate their value to the caucus and to the country and to our party,” Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), elected in 2010, said after the early round of leadership races.

Cicilline is running unopposed to chair a policy and communications shop, a newly created position that would give him a bigger platform to shape the party’s message. He acknowledged that these new posts give the junior Democrats a chance to shine and potentially move up the ladder — or to fall on their faces.

“To the extent we’re successful, it will position some of us for other opportunities in the future; to the extent we’re not successful, it will prove that,” he said.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), fresh off a victorious stint chairing the political arm of the caucus, was promoted to assistant Democratic leader, which places him at No. 4 just after the trio of veteran leaders. Elected in 2008, Luján is the relative veteran of the new Democrats joining elected leadership.

The race to succeed Luján as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee features four members from the class of 2012 who, like Jeffries, have yet to complete their third term.

Jeffries, 48, edged out Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) for caucus chairman, 123 to 113, in the secret ballot.

Lee, 72, a 20-year veteran, said that she “absolutely” fell victim to ageism and sexism in her narrow loss. “It’s here. It’s everywhere,” she told reporters.

Jeffries acknowledged that some Democrats want a leadership team that blends in fresh faces with Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn: “The question for many was, how do we get the right mix of experience and generational change?”

The midterm elections, in which Democrats are likely to land a net gain of 40 seats, swept in more than 60 incoming freshmen to the caucus.

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) runs the Future Forum, an informal caucus of 28 Democrats under the age of 50. This year’s elections brought 27 potential new members to his group.

While he supported Lee, his Bay Area neighbor, Swalwell welcomed this new talent. “The country is embracing new ideas,” he said. “I’m like the old man on the block now.”

Swalwell, 38, said he will not mind seeing new members of leadership battling to prove their mettle for possible promotions. “Competition is always a good thing,” he said.

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Publicly, none of these ambitious new leaders will encourage Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn to retire, aware that the vast majority of Democrats respect the trio and want their steady hands to lead the coming fights with President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“She is not going to lame duck herself, particularly because we’re dealing with the Trump administration and we’re dealing with Mitch McConnell and the boys in the Senate,” Jeffries said, rebuffing discussion of his potential to one day become House speaker.

But his own supporters see him rising above this new posting. “The sky’s the limit for him. He’s very well-respected in the entire caucus,” said Rep. Marc Veasey (D-Tex.), a fellow member of the 2012 class.

Rank-and-file Democrats do not know when their top leaders will step aside, but many see this transition as something that will occur within two to four years — or even sooner.

After Republicans focused relentlessly on Pelosi in their ad campaigns, most Democrats believe she has earned the right to another term as speaker, following a four-year run last decade that included passage of the Affordable Care Act and other liberal priorities.

There is a fear that if she is still speaker by the fall of 2020, running for another term, that the attack ads will be more effective then.

So Luján, Jeffries, Cicilline and others have an undefined period of time to impress their colleagues.

It will, Cicilline said, “allow people to see them serve the caucus in these different capacities.”

But their first order of business might be to soothe some of the resentment that Lee and other long-tenured Democrats feel toward the up-and-comers.

“I’m focused on making sure that we bring the caucus together,” Jeffries said.

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