BALTIMORE – A new generation of House Democratic leaders taking over for Nancy Pelosi debuted at the party’s annual retreat, feisty and fired up to brag about their accomplishments with President Joe Biden and counter Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s new Republican majority.
The team led by New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who made history as the first Black American to helm a major political party in Congress, brings a wholesale reshuffling of congressional leadership eager to run alongside Biden if he seeks a second term in 2024 and as they work win back the House majority. Pelosi and her circle stepped aside after some 20 years to make way for the new crew.
“All of us share the same goal: That is to safeguard the progress that we have made for the last two years and to make sure Democrats take the House again in 2024,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar of California, who holds the No. 3 spot as caucus chairman, in opening the three-day party gathering.
But echoes of Pelosi are everywhere: from the location of the retreat in the former speaker's Baltimore hometown to the Pelosi-isms sprinkled into the speeches, breakout sessions and catchphrases of the new wave of Democrats.
As Democratic Whip Katherine Clark, the second-ranking leader, introduced a dozen women newly elected to Congress and asked them to explain their reasons for seeking public office, she reached into the well of Pelosi sayings.
"Speaker Emerita Pelosi taught us to ‘know our why,’” Clark said, as she turned it over to the newcomers.
Rep. Becca Balint, the first woman elected to Congress from Vermont, spoke of fighting for the “soul of democracy.”
“Trailblazers and tots,” said new Rep. Jasmine Crockett of Texas, a civil rights lawyer now representing a Dallas-area congressional seat, giving a nod to the Shirley Chisolm, the first Black woman in Congress, and the importance of supporting children. Rep. Delia Ramirez of Illinois cited her pregnant mother's journey as an immigrant from Guatemala crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to give her child a better life.
“The Speaker Emeritus always says: Our diversity is our strength, and our unity is our power," Crockett said, noting the diverse class of first-term congresswoman.
Pelosi and her team have stayed on as influential members of Congress, an unusual but not unprecedented situation.
The former No. 2 Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, has been tapped for a new role heading up a group giving voice to the geographic diversity of the Democratic caucus beyond the coasts and into the heartland.
Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking party figure last year, remains at the leadership table as the assistant Democratic leader.
As Democrats are finding, it’s much easier to remain politically unified as the minority party. The absence of public tensions and infighting is in stark contrast to the divisions plaguing House Republicans, who have been forced to shelve some of their high priority bills on border security and other issues because they cannot agree on solutions.
It's a turnaround for Democrats from when they had majority control. Back then, they stumbled through interparty battles between progressives and moderates as they debated Biden’s agenda and ultimately ushered the bipartisan infrastructure package and their own health care and climate change bill into law.
Biden implored Democrats in his speech late Wednesday to go out and sell their accomplishments across the country. McCarthy, R-Calif., has a slim majority hold on the House, and Democrats are eyeing the five seats they need in the 2024 election to regain control of the chamber.
Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas said it’s not only important to show Americans “the positive impact that these projects, whether it be manufacturing or infrastructure, in their daily lives,” but to remind voters of how that compares to Republicans priorities.
“We also draw the continue to draw the contrast with Republicans who voted no but want to take the dough,” she said about the lawmakers who opposed various bills but still promote the projects and programs back home.
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico said the Congressional Hispanic Caucus was planning events around the nation as Democrats look to prove they are delivering, particularly in rural areas.
“You know what, this infrastructure bill is good because our potholes are not red potholes or blue potholes, they just mess up your truck, right?” Fernández said. “And everybody gets that.”
Democrats also used the annual conference to reinforce their support for Biden as the potential party candidate in the next presidential election. As the president prepares to announce whether he will run for reelection the party has been reckoning with four more years of Biden who, at 80, also represents an earlier era.
Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois, one of the vulnerable Democrats who won reelection last year, said she would be "very pleased to have the opportunity to be on a ballot with President Biden in 2024. Unequivocally. Full stop.”
Pelosi, the first woman to be speaker, is attending the conference and offering her insight, views and strategy from the sidelines.
“The Speaker’s iconic,” Clark said in a brief interview. “And we’re in this incredible situation where we have a new leadership, but she’s still here to help guide us and to be a sounding board.”
Added Rep. Joe Neguse of Colorado, chairman of the party’s policy and communication committee that Pelosi created a decade ago: “I think folks recognize kind of the gravity of having her here."