House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in an unmistakable show of political strength Tuesday, cut a deal to sideline a potential challenger, won fresh confidence from her party’s resurgent left and earned high praise from Democrats’ most influential figure, former president Barack Obama.
Together, the developments buoyed Pelosi as she fights to repel a small group of dissidents inside the Democratic caucus who want to force a leadership shake-up after 16 years with the Californian at the helm.
One was Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), who left Washington last week planning to take the Thanksgiving holiday to ponder a run against Pelosi for speaker. But her dalliance ended Tuesday. Fudge said she would support Pelosi after the minority leader agreed to make Fudge chairman of a resurrected subcommittee on elections and pledged that “the most loyal voting bloc in the Democratic Party, black women, will have a seat at the decision-making table.”
“I am now confident that we will move forward together,” Fudge said in a statement. “I now join my colleagues in support of the leadership team of Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) is seeking to become majority leader, and Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), currently the assistant Democratic leader, is running for majority whip.
Pelosi’s opponents continue to insist they have the votes to block her from the speakership when the full House meets Jan. 3. But Fudge’s withdrawal showed that their numbers are dwindling, not growing — at least for now.
And it demonstrated that Pelosi — whose bare-knuckle political skills were forged in her Baltimore upbringing, numerous prior House leadership races, and high-stakes legislative battles during her four-year speakership — has considerable tools at her disposal to win further support.
Speaking Tuesday in Chicago, Obama hailed Pelosi as “one of the most effective legislative leaders that this country’s ever seen.”
“Nancy is not always the best on a cable show or with a quick sound bite or what have you,” Obama said. “But her skill, tenacity, toughness, vision, is remarkable. Her stamina, her ability to see around corners, her ability to stand her ground and do hard things and to suffer unpopularity to get the right thing done I think stands up against any person that I’ve observed or worked directly with in Washington during my lifetime.”
No living Democrat holds more sway than Obama, who signed the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial restructuring bill and economic stimulus legislation that all passed through Pelosi’s House in 2009 and 2010.
Obama prefaced his remarks, made in Chicago during the public taping of a podcast hosted by his former political adviser David Axelrod, by saying he was “not going to wade into House Democratic caucus politics.” But he then proceeded to deliver what amounted to an unqualified endorsement.
With Fudge opting not to run for speaker, the cadre of Pelosi opponents will be forced to find another standard-bearer to try to depose the longtime Democratic leader. Sixteen Democrats signed a letter Monday vowing to oppose Pelosi in a party-nominating contest next week as well as during the floor vote, while four more Democrats who did not sign the letter said they remained opposed to her.
Together, those members could block Pelosi from taking the speaker’s gavel if they maintain their opposition. But Pelosi is working to convince and cajole members, with help from her allies in the House and other key Democratic players.
Pelosi’s detractors have pounced on several fronts, noting that her continued presence atop the Democratic hierarchy has impeded younger leaders and that she remains a political liability for her party’s candidates in Republican-leaning districts.
But they have struggled to escape the perception that they represent a group of Democrats who are whiter, more male and more moderate than the party caucus as a whole. Losing Fudge, their only prominent African American supporter, is a further blow.
They have also struggled to attract support from young incoming members associated with the party’s left flank — such as Reps.-elect Jahana Hayes (Conn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.) — who made calls for new leadership during their campaign but have kept their distance from Pelosi’s vocal opposition.
Speaking on MSNBC on Monday night, Ocasio-Cortez said the rebel group was “not necessarily reflective of the diversity of the party” and questioned why they were determined to oust Pelosi.
“I do think that we got sent to Congress on a mandate to change how government works, to change what government even looks like,” she said. “But if we are not on the same page about changing the systems and the values and how we’re going to adapt as a party for the future, then what is the point of just changing our party leadership just for the sake of it?”
Pelosi continued to rack up support Tuesday, winning the votes of two incoming freshmen — Reps.-elect Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Harley Rouda (Calif.) — and endorsements from the Sierra Club and the Alliance for Retired Americans.
“Divisions within our own party and public disputes over leadership will only hurt our efforts to get our country and our government back on the right course,” said Omar, who has allied herself with the other young liberals.
Democrats have won 233 seats to Republicans’ 199 after Ben McAdams ousted GOP Rep. Mia Love in Utah. Three races remain unresolved, with a Democrat leading in one. Some Republicans also believe that Rep. David Valadao (R-Calif.), who was declared the winner on election night, could ultimately lose his race to Democrat T.J. Cox after the final ballots are counted in the coming days.
Fudge’s decision to withdraw her potential challenge came the same day she faced serious questions about a letter of support she wrote in 2015 for a former judge and state senator who is now accused of killing his ex-wife.
Fudge wrote the letter to a prosecutor as Lance Mason prepared to plead guilty to beating his then-wife, Aisha Fraser, so severely in 2014 that she required reconstructive plastic surgery. Mason, Fudge wrote, was “a good man who made a very bad mistake.”
On Saturday, Fraser was found fatally stabbed, according to news reports. Mason, who served a nine-month sentence for the earlier assault, was taken into custody and is expected to be charged in her killing.
In a statement released by her office Tuesday, Fudge said that her “heart breaks” for Fraser and her family.
“My support of Lance in 2015 was based on the person I knew for almost 30 years — an accomplished lawyer, prosecutor, state legislator and judge. That’s the Lance Mason I supported,” she said. “The person who committed these crimes is not the Lance Mason familiar to me. They were horrific crimes, and I condemn them. I and everyone who knew Aisha are mourning her loss.”
In the 2015 letter, obtained by a reporter for WOIO-TV in Cleveland, Fudge said Mason’s assault on Fraser was “out of character and totally contrary to everything I know about him.”
“Lance accepts full responsibility for his actions and has assured me that something like this will never happen again,” she wrote.