In her first interview addressing the controversy, the chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said this week that she remains committed to keeping the party tent as open as possible and defended her efforts to protect Democratic incumbents, even those — such as Daniel Lipinski, a fellow House member from Illinois and the beneficiary of the fundraiser that Bustos skipped — in safe districts who have drawn opposition from the left.
“Everybody has to navigate their own district, and who am I to prescribe how anybody does that?” she said. “I just think, our core values as Democrats, we’re pretty much on the same page. We want to make sure that people have opportunities to do better.”
Five months into their House majority, however, Democrats have had trouble staying on the same page on policy and politics. Proposed expansions of government, such as Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal climate plan, have set liberal activists against the party leadership, and the DCCC’s defense of incumbents of all ideological stripes has similarly rankled the left.
The dust-up over the Lipinski fundraiser, which is set for Thursday, followed an episode in which Bustos moved to formalize a DCCC policy to sideline political consultants who work for insurgent candidates challenging Democratic incumbents. Critics, mainly on the left, said the policy amounted to a “blacklist” that sends a negative message to the party’s grass roots — amplifying a conflict between the committee and activists that simmered for years under Bustos’s predecessors.
But Bustos showed no sign of changing course this week, and she offered a defiant defense of what she says is the need for an ideologically diverse coalition — pointing out that without moderate members elected in areas that President Trump won in 2016, Democrats would not have committee gavels, subpoena power or the opportunity to pass any legislation, including Medicare-for-all.
“We lose 17 seats, and we don’t have a majority anymore. That’s pretty fragile,” she said, noting that 31 House Democrats represent districts in which voters preferred Trump in 2016. “Who are they to say what the litmus test is?” she asked of those on the party’s left. “Who is anybody to say?”
Lipinski’s district, however, is not one of those districts; Hillary Clinton won it by 15 points, and liberals argue that the party has no business becoming involved in a primary when there is no indication that the seat is at risk of falling to Republicans.
Bustos’s initial decision to attend the fundraiser was a “massive blunder,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, “and I give her credit for listening.”
But Khanna, who has also battled Bustos over the policy on consultants, said Democratic leaders still need to be more wary of alienating the party’s grass roots, and he remains opposed to any practice that elevates House incumbents over any other Democrat.
“No one in this country — whether you are a progressive, whether you’re a moderate or whether you’re a conservative — believes that we should have policies that protect incumbent members of Congress,” he said. “I have not seen anyone who believes that we should be protecting the status quo.”
The head of the DCCC, who is elected by Democratic incumbents, might be a notable exception. Asked about the Lipinski fundraiser, Bustos said her first job as chair is to “make sure every incumbent comes back.” Second, she said, is to focus energy on battleground districts — and she suggested that her plan to attend the fundraiser had become a distraction from that mission.
“Anything that takes away from that is, in my opinion, time, attention, effort and resources that we can’t be spending to make sure that we hang on to tough districts and pick up the ones that we can,” she said.
But Bustos also noted her “100 percent pro-choice voting record” when announcing the cancellation and suggested in the interview that the Alabama legislature’s passing a bill last month banning most abortions was another key factor: “It was a wake-up call for a lot of people all over the country.”
Asked whether she might have attended the fundraiser otherwise, Bustos said, “The timing wasn’t exactly great, let me put it that way.”
Lipinski said in a written statement that “it became clear that her attendance at a fundraiser for me was becoming a distraction” and that “we both understood that her most important job right now is her work leading the DCCC.”
“I very much appreciate Cheri Bustos’ work at the DCCC and her steadfast support of me through the years,” as well as “the support of Democratic Party leaders who understand we must have a big tent and must refrain from becoming a circular firing squad,” he said.
No one understands that better than Bustos, who represents one of the 31 pro-Trump districts that Democrats flipped. Her northeastern Illinois constituency went from electing Barack Obama by 17 points in 2012 to narrowly picking Trump in 2016 — the fifth-largest swing of any House district in the country — and Bustos said she does not see any sign it will be swinging back.
National Republicans are pledging to give Bustos a tough run in 2020 — a rare challenge among national campaign chairs, who tend to represent safer districts.
She has so far thrived by keeping her policy agenda focused on pocketbook issues and away from presidential investigations and the impeachment issue. And despite a rigorous national travel schedule, she has made it a point to show up and spend time with constituents — whether joining in on work shifts or chatting up shoppers at the supermarket — and otherwise stay out of the most divisive national fights.
Bustos, who played college basketball and volleyball, reached for an athletic metaphor in responding to those in the party who have taken aim at her and the DCCC.
“I believe in being a team player, and you may have disagreements at practice,” she said. “But when you’re out there playing the game, you better all come together.”
She noted that the DCCC had set several fundraising records after the new policy on consultants prompted calls for donor boycotts, including from liberal superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “I’m very competitive. I’m very driven. I pride myself on being honest and inclusive,” Bustos said. “And I welcome anybody within our caucus to do the same thing.”