Michigan lawmaker wants seat for Midwest at Dem leadership table
Rep. Dan Kildee is aiming high as he eyes a leadership spot in the Democratic Caucus next year.
The three-term Michigan lawmaker says he hasn’t decided which post he’ll pursue. But he’s shooting for one of the top five or six spots, citing a desire to bring more regional diversity to a leadership table that’s long been dominated by coastal voices.
“It’s hard to predict how it’s going to unfold, that’s for sure,” Kildee said Wednesday by phone from Minnesota, where he was stumping for Democratic hopefuls. “But, yeah, I’m interested in having a significant leadership role."
Kildee’s promised run is just the latest sign of both the unrest within a caucus that’s been guided by the same three powerbrokers for a dozen years and the uncertainty surrounding midterm elections that will unquestionably shape the party’s leadership team heading into a crucial 2020 presidential cycle.
It also foreshadows what could be a very crowded field in the scramble to join the party brass next year, as a growing number of younger, newer lawmakers are positioning themselves behind the scenes for potential leadership bids.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is vowing both to retake the House and return as Speaker next year — a title she lost in a GOP wave in 2010. But Pelosi has led the caucus since 2003, and many of her troops think it’s simply time for her to step aside to make room for new faces and ideas. Virtually all Democrats agree that next year’s leadership slate is unknowable before the midterm dust has settled.
“I don’t think anybody has really figured out … what the leadership’s going to look like in 2019,” Kildee said.
The debate was accelerated in June with the shocking primary defeat of Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the popular chairman of the caucus and a seasoned fundraiser, who was seen by many lawmakers as a natural replacement for Pelosi.
Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), the vice-chairwoman of the caucus, quickly announced her bid to replace Crowley post-November, and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) entered the race closely behind. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), meanwhile, has declared she’ll seek Sánchez’s vice-chair spot next year — a bid expected to find challengers.
Democrats have long touted the diversity of the caucus when it comes to gender, race and sexual orientation, saying the variances lend the party a stark advantage over the more homogeneous Republican conference. But party leaders have faced plenty of internal grumbling about what many lawmakers believe is a dearth of regional diversity in leadership.
Pelosi and her top lieutenants — Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.) — all represent coastal states, as do Crowley, Sánchez, Lee and Clark.
Kildee is among the Democrats arguing that the party’s success hinges not only on policy and ideas, but also on empowering regionally diverse figures to promote them — an argument that’s gained steam since President Trump stunned pundits in 2016 by winning heartland states like Michigan and Wisconsin, which were once Democratic strongholds.
“If we’re going to be a majority party we’re going to have to have people in positions of leadership across the country … in the places where we have to win the majority to be the majority,” he said.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) used a similar argument in challenging Pelosi after the 2016 cycle. (Pelosi won easily, but Ryan’s 63 votes were thought to have sent a message). And Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), who represents a rural Illinois district won handily by Trump, has also warned that Democrats ignore heartland voters at their own political peril.
Bustos, one of three co-chairs of the Democrats’ messaging arm, is among the newer crop of lawmakers expressing interest in a greater leadership role next year. Kildee calls her a friend, and said there’s plenty of room at the leadership table for more than one Midwesterner.
“You look at any other region of the country, there’s clearly been room for multiple leaders from specific areas,” he said. “That applies to the middle of the country as well.”
After the 2016 coup attempt, Pelosi responded with a series of internal rules changes designed to spread power to the newer lawmakers. Among the changes was an expansion of the party’s messaging arm — the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee (DPCC) — to include three co-chairman, including Bustos; a shift in power allowing the full caucus to choose the head of the campaign arm, a post previously appointed by Pelosi; and the creation of vice-chairmanships for congressional committees, to be awarded to newer members.
Kildee hailed those changes, but suggested they don’t go far enough. Joining Sánchez, Lee and Clark, he’s focusing his leadership pitch largely on a promise to lend greater voice to rank-and-file members.
“There’s going to be a real conversation about the structure of our leadership and the philosophy of leadership,” Kildee said.
“It’s the one thing there’s a pretty strong interest in is having a more distributed leadership model, one that has many more members, so they have a real say in the direction [of the party],” he added. “And I want to be a part of that.”