A woman of color will be elected to join House leadership this week for the first time, and she’ll be a Democrat from California.
While most attention in Washington is focused on whether House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) will beat back a challenge in the Wednesday leadership election, House Democrats will also choose between Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Whittier) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) for vice chair of the Democratic Caucus.
Neither Sanchez, a longtime leader and current chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, or Lee, a longtime leader and former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, says she’s focused on the historic nature of the race. Several House members said they weren’t even aware of it.
So the race for a low-level leadership position may seem like inside baseball, but there are few spots available on the Democratic team right now, and those who hold the lower positions are the most likely to move up when Pelosi and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) give up the positions they’ve held for nearly two decades.
Current Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) is expected to replace Chairman Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), who has reached his term limit.
Though Lee and Sanchez are progressives, they represent different aspects of the Democratic Party.
Lee is considered one of the most liberal members of Congress. First elected in 1998, she cast the lone vote against the authorization for use of military force in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She said the authorization, which gave President George W. Bush authority to use the military to fight terrorism, was too open-ended. It is still being used by President Obama.
Lee is billing herself as a stalwart who will guard Democrats’ lines in the sand as President-elect Donald Trump tries to cross them.
“Given we’re in the minority, we have to be a resistance movement to much of what Donald Trump is going to propose. There may be some times to work with him on [an] infrastructure bill, maybe something that makes sense for the country, but not when it comes to the worth of human dignity and challenging the dignity of all people, which is what he did during his campaign,” Lee said.
That’s why Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said she would back Lee.
“Barbara is an activist — a progressive, outspoken activist — and that’s important to me. That’s not to say Linda hasn’t been. At the end of the day, you just make a decision,” Bass said. “It’s tough, because these are two women I have the utmost respect for.”
Sanchez, first elected in 2003, is seen as a team builder who recognizes that all Democrats don’t fit the same mold.
“It’s important to have fresh perspectives in the leadership periodically,” she said. “You need to try to be inclusive, you need to try to include different perspectives, but always with the idea in mind of building consensus within our party.”
Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) said Sanchez had made sure moderate Democrats get to voice their perspectives too, and that’s why he’s backing Sanchez.
“Even though politically she’s way to the left of me, she understands the need for diversity in the caucus and really fights for the right of people to take different positions, which I think is really important,” Peters said.
Both women have been campaigning for the post for more than a year, and both said their fellow Democrats wanted a greater say in what the caucus does. Some House Democrats complained about waiting years to get on the committees they want, and others about not getting to speak about issues they are passionate about because they aren’t in leadership.
“I got elected when I was 33, and I came in and I had energy and ideas and passion and folks were like, ‘Oh, great. Sit down and wait 10 years,’” Sanchez said. “Somebody who comes into Congress, say in their 60s, doesn’t want to wait 10 years to have an opportunity.”
Sanchez said if elected she wanted to highlight members at news conferences who have interests or specialties on a topic, rather than having the same senior members speak over and over again. It’s a change she made as head of the Hispanic Caucus.
Lee said she wanted to help members who don’t serve on committees relevant to their interests to create task forces or other groups to highlight their expertise, the way she did when she created a task force on poverty.
While there are white women, and black and Latino men, in House Democratic leadership, the pick of Sanchez or Lee will be a first.
Before 1987, the lowest-ranked position in House Democratic leadership came with the title caucus secretary, and it was reserved for a woman. The Democratic speaker or minority leader appointed a woman to the position, though there may have been times the caucus was allowed to approve the choice, said Rutgers University congressional history professor Irwin Gertzog.
Two women of color, Asian American Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii) and black Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), held the caucus secretary position between 1949 and 1987.
The position was changed because female members of the Democratic Caucus began treating it like a full leadership position rather than a courtesy, which occasionally put the women in the job at odds with House leaders who expected those with the title to follow their lead, Gertzog said.
Just two women, both white, have served as vice chair since the title changed and the position was opened to men and became contestable.
Though it’s the lowest slot in Democratic leadership (and has been called a “potted plant” or “hall monitor” or “head pencil sharpener”), several former vice chairmen — Hoyer, Becerra, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and now-Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) — have used the vice chair position as a launching pad to other positions of power.
A former vice chairman and chairman of the caucus, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), backs Sanchez, and said the position would be especially important next year regardless of who’s in it.
“It’s going to be a very busy caucus, because you’re in the minority. We got an awful lot of ideas and we have a wave coming at us from Pennsylvania Avenue in terms of things from privatizing Medicare to infrastructure issues to jobs, to the defense of Roe vs. Wade,” he said. “We’re going to need all hands on deck.”
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Read more about the 55 members of California’s delegation at latimes.com/politics