In a strange subplot to the tight race for House minority whip, a powerful position coveted by Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), a fellow California Democrat has charged that she is facing threats of political retribution because of her refusal to back Pelosi.
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo), who among California's 32 Democratic House members is the only one to publicly support Pelosi's rival for whip, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), said she spoke out this week because of growing rumors that state Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco) plans to weaken Democratic support in her Bay Area district as a payback.
California's 52 House districts are set to be redrawn later this year by the Democratic-controlled California Legislature, with a 53rd seat added based on new census figures. It is always a political and emotionally raw process, especially when incumbents become concerned that their reelection chances could be diminished.
The decision by Tauscher to go public with the charges against Burton--which first appeared Thursday on the front page of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper--resulted in an angry flurry of finger-pointing and name-calling. The hard feelings provided a glimpse into the back-room maneuvering that marks the fight for leadership posts and the congressional reapportionment.
"I think these threats [of political reprisal] are inappropriate and they ought to be stopped," Tauscher said Thursday. "Considering the close relationship between Nancy and John Burton, I think she could have them stopped."
Pelosi, a longtime family friend of Burton's, dismissed the allegations as "a waste of my time."
"First of all, there are no threats," said Pelosi, who would be the first woman to hold the whip position. "Those of us who attend the meetings regularly know our thrust is to bring all 32 [Democratic House] members back, to add some members and to improve difficult seats."
Pelosi also said Tauscher, whom she helped win a close first election in 1996, never came to her with any of the concerns Tauscher now has publicized.
Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Mission Hills), who is involved in the delegation's redistricting strategy, also scoffed at Tauscher's charges. "Ellen has had reason to know from people who care about her that her seat would not only be protected but that it would be improved."
Pelosi said she believed the charges ultimately would be just a blip in her run for the key leadership slot responsible for corralling votes among the entire House Democratic caucus. The current whip, Rep. David E. Bonior (D-Mich.), is expected to give it up, perhaps later this year, to pursue a race for his home state's governorship in 2002.
"I'm going to win this race," Pelosi said. "I think this is a tactic on the part of [Hoyer's] campaign to introduce an element of discord."
Hoyer could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Burton, furious about Tauscher's claims, called her "full of beans."
"That tells you how dumb she is," the blunt-speaking Burton added. "Why would anyone who is a Democrat want to see a Republican [in a House seat] instead of her? Our whole game is to preserve the Democratic majority and try to gain at least one seat."
Tauscher countered that she "was only one of thousands that have been subjected to Sen. Burton's classless characterizations."
"I'm one of a very small number of Democrats who have swing districts and don't pay homage to the old guard," she said.