NEW YORK — Question after question dealt with health care and immigration until, finally, a doctor in the crowd demanded to know what Rep. Joseph Crowley was doing to defeat President Trump and congressional Republicans.
After explaining how, in 2016, his party had failed “really to speak to the needs of the American people,” Crowley (D-N.Y.) let his audience know he would be on the road a lot ahead of the 2018 midterms selling himself and other Democrats who are “more akin with Akron” than Manhattan.
“I’m traveling up to New Hampshire. I’m out to Michigan, I’m going out west to California. I’ve been down to Texas. I’m going all over,” Crowley, born and raised in Queens, told his constituents at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx.
Indeed, Crowley is crisscrossing the nation to boost House Democrats in their bid to take back the majority in the November elections. But, after nearly 20 years spent largely as a backbencher, Crowley is also auditioning for a promotion into a more powerful role than his current job as chairman of the Democratic Caucus, the No. 4 post in Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s leadership team.
He is raising money for candidates, traveling to their districts. This week Crowley is serving as host for the annual issues retreat, originally scheduled for Maryland’s Eastern Shore but rearranged to be in the Capitol as budget negotiations hit a critical point. Crowley is leading a group of 20 trying to forge a policy agenda that would put “meat on the bones” of a vague sounding pledge from Democrats to deliver a “better deal” than Trump.
But all this is part of a campaign without an actual target, at least not a spoken one. A trio of 70-somethings outrank Crowley — Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) — and none have signaled any intent to exit the stage.
As if to prove her mettle, Pelosi, 77, commanded the floor Wednesday with a speech that lasted more than eight hours, demanding votes on immigration legislation in exchange for the budget bill.
Crowley’s friends openly discuss their hopes for him to be their leader. “I’ve always thought of Joe Crowley as, at minimum, speaker of the House,” Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a confidant, said before speaking at Crowley’s Hispanic Heritage Month event last fall in Queens.
They openly talk about generational transformation in leadership after four straight losing elections — but those same friends immediately make clear that Crowley, 55, is not challenging Pelosi, and they praise the hard work put in by Hoyer and Clyburn.
It’s a paradox that Democrats have lived through ever since losing the majority in 2010, when Pelosi decided to stay on in her bid to become the first House leader to reclaim the speaker gavel since Sam Rayburn in 1955.
Crowley is the last of a generation of next-era leaders who rose quickly up the ranks but then one by one got tired of waiting. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) left to become White House chief of staff, then mayor of Chicago. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) won a Senate seat. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) returned home to become state attorney general. Others faded into the background of the caucus or retired altogether.
Pelosi’s friends say Democrats looking to be anointed are wasting their time. Pelosi’s own path to power came when she cut the line to win her first leadership race 16 years ago.
That process of choosing Pelosi’s successor requires Democrats, deeper in the political wilderness than at any time in the past 70 years, to figure out who they are and what type of leaders they want.
Some fear that Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn are the wrong faces in this era of change elections, particularly as Republicans prepare to spend tens of millions of dollars vilifying Pelosi to try to weigh down Democrats in their bid to win the 24 seats they need for the majority.
Yet, as Democrats have an increasingly diverse liberal base, some wonder whether Crowley — a white Irish Catholic with policy roots in the party’s moderate wing — is the right fit. Senate Democrats already have another white New Yorker, Charles E. Schumer (D), as their leader.
Some rank-and-file Democrats remain loyal to Hoyer, who has been Pelosi’s deputy for 15 years, as the next standard-bearer. Yet others have grown so frustrated they would prefer skipping past the Hoyer and Crowley generations for a completely fresh face, when and if the time comes.
For now, Crowley, elected in 1998, the same year as House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), is uniquely positioned to take the reins if the caucus ever decides to sweep out the top septuagenarian leaders. His junior leadership post gives him a profile to lead weekly meetings and this week’s retreat while also giving him a political platform.
He’s already contributed from his own committees or raised from donors more than $2.6 million to candidates and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, according to his office. And, as he told the doctors in the Bronx, he is frequently on the road doing events. Last fall, during a weekend trip to Las Vegas to boost Democrats in two swing districts, Crowley mused about being within reach of becoming speaker.
“It wasn’t necessarily something that I set out in life to do but I find myself possibly in the position of — where what I’ve attained so far in terms of leadership — that may happen in the future. It may not,” he said, driving between events.
Crowley rejected talk of leadership races until after the November elections, saying that would only divide the party ahead of the midterms. But he is more open than ever about wanting the top job, eventually, some day.
“It really is all up to my colleagues to determine,” he said, pausing. “It’s me or somebody else.”
After the 2016 elections, Crowley briefly considered challenging Pelosi, who was weakened because her predictions of gaining more than 20 seats and possibly the majority fell far short. Democrats picked up just six seats and were particularly thumped in Midwestern districts where white voters sided with Trump and congressional Republicans.
Instead, Crowley won the caucus chair job uncontested. He held his victory party at the Dubliner, the Irish pub a few blocks from the Capitol. A musician at heart, Crowley still plays guitar at Democratic parties and is a crooner with preferences of Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra.
He presents as an old-school New York politician, from the middle class neighborhood of Woodside, who rose up the ranks of Queens County Democrats, first in the legislature and then in Congress. He is the county chairman, and he recently played a prominent role in a shake-up of New York’s City Council that ousted far-left progressives from power.
He once served as chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, a caucus of largely suburban moderates. But he built bridges to liberal wings of the caucus, getting arrested with Gutiérrez at protests over immigrant deportation policies.
He has keen political instincts. Years ago, while making donor calls, Crowley heard a voice on the other end of the line: “Mr. Trump, please.”
“Hang up the phone, hang up the phone,” Crowley recalled telling his fundraiser. “I don’t want a nickel out of him.”
There’s no question Crowley is one of the most well-liked figures in his caucus, but his future may be determined by how his colleagues measure his gravitas. He is a senior member of the influential Ways and Means Committee, but he is not associated with major policy legislation.
And then there is the shadow of Pelosi. She has served as minority leader or speaker since January 2003, so long that more than two-thirds of House Democrats have never served under any other leader. Crowley, meanwhile, is the sixth caucus chairman, a term-limited post, since Pelosi’s reign began.
If Democrats win back the majority, almost everyone expects Pelosi to claim the speaker’s gavel. But if they come up short, the party might face a reckoning. In the meantime, the unspoken campaign is likely to continue.