Democrats rush to support Pelosi amid fight with Ocasio-Cortez
Mike Lillis and Cristina Marcos
A growing number of progressive House Democrats, frustrated with an ongoing spat between Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), are taking the freshman New Yorker to task for accusing Pelosi of treating minority women unfairly.
The critics say Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, crossed a line when she accused Pelosi of putting a target on “newly elected women of color” for their far-left policy positions.
The remarks — and the media uproar they’ve created — led exasperated Democrats to sound off Thursday against the freshman social media sensation, accusing Ocasio-Cortez of harboring unrealistic views about her own influence on Capitol Hill — to the detriment of the Democrats’ ambitious policy agenda.
“What a weak argument,” said Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a member of both the Congressional Black and Progressive caucuses. “Because you can’t get your way and because you’re getting pushback you resort to using the race card? Unbelievable. Unbelievable to me.”
Other liberals, while not so seething, also defended Pelosi, warning of the political dangers of adhering to stringent ideological demands — and airing gripes with other Democrats in public.
“You know how people lose the elections? By not having the ability to see the big picture and not being able to keep their eye on the ball,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a Congressional Black Caucus member.
But Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair who is Indian American, said that she could relate to Ocasio-Cortez feeling targeted as a woman of color.
“I can tell you that it happens all the time. It isn't usually from just one person. The system is geared in that way,” Jayapal said. “It's just a constant thing we deal with as women of color. It's always harder when it's perceived as coming from your own side, whether that was how it was intended or not.”
Jayapal said that she and her fellow Progressive Caucus co-chair, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), are requesting a meeting with Pelosi to “talk about the general relationship of the progressives to the Democratic caucus.”
“I think it's just important that we clear this,” Jayapal said.
The seeds of the recent quarrel were planted before the July 4 recess, when Pelosi reluctantly ditched plans to move a House-crafted border spending package in favor of a more conservative Senate-passed bill.
Liberals like Ocasio-Cortez, furious over reports that migrants have been detained at the border under dismal health and hygienic conditions, had demanded that the legislation include explicit protections for those in federal custody — provisions not contained in the Senate bill.
Some liberals accused the moderate Democrats who’d pressed for the Senate bill of putting child migrants at risk. Pocan, for instance, equated Democrats in the Problem Solvers Caucus to child abusers. Ocasio-Cortez’s top aide, chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti, went a long step further, accusing the centrist members of the Blue Dog and New Democrat coalitions of being racist.
“They certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s,” Chakrabarti said in a tweet that has since been deleted.
That tweet prompted Pelosi, in an extraordinary closed-door meeting Wednesday, to scold her troops for airing public grievances instead of taking their concerns directly to her — a message she defended Thursday.
“They took offense because I addressed, at the request of my members, an offensive tweet that came out of one of the members' offices that referenced our Blue Dogs and our New Dems essentially as segregationists,” Pelosi said at a Thursday press conference, referring to the tweet from Ocasio-Cortez’s top aide. “Our members took offense at that. I addressed that. How they're interpreting and carrying it to another place is up to them.”
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), a New Democrat Coalition vice chair who is African American, issued a statement on Thursday criticizing the comparison to segregationists.
“I personally experienced Dixiecrats’ bigoted policies growing up. So, to even insinuate that I, or any other member of the New Dems, would promote policies that are racist and hateful or ones that would negatively impact communities of color is deeply offensive and couldn’t be further from the truth,” Sewell said.
There were early signs that Pelosi’s entreaty not to air dirty laundry in public has yet to sink in.
Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post on Wednesday that she felt Pelosi was targeting her and three other progressive freshman women of color known as the "squad": Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Ayanna Pressley (Mass.).
“When these comments first started, I kind of thought that she was keeping the progressive flank at more of an arm’s distance in order to protect more moderate members, which I understood,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Post. “But the persistent singling out ... it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful ... the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.”
Ocasio-Cortez maintained in an interview with CNN on Thursday that she thinks the progressive freshmen are being singled out but rejected the notion that Pelosi has racial animus.
The flare-up comes on the heels of Pelosi’s interview last week with The New York Times, when she noted the four freshmen were the only Democrats to oppose the party’s more liberal border bill and therefore had limited clout in the subsequent debate over the Senate version, even despite their considerable social media presence.
“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi said. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
Progressive Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), while stressing she is friendly with both Pelosi and the freshmen, echoed the Speaker in arguing the four have limited influence as a bloc.
“I think it's really not accurate to call them the ‘squad,’ ” Schakowsky said. “It's not like they, you know, they see themselves as a squad and get together and say, ‘Now, what's our next move?’ ”
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), another progressive, praised both Pelosi — who has a life-long track record fighting for racial justice and women’s rights — and the freshmen rabble-rousers, who have infused the party with a wave of energy and fresh ideas.
“We admire them; they energize us; they're eager,” Moore said. “And of course they have the luxury of — it is a luxury — just to be able to represent [their] district and to be strident.
“Nancy, of course, is the leader, so she has to represent all of us.”
But Moore also said the influence of freshmen like Ocasio-Cortez ultimately rests with how many votes they can actually sway.
“They’ll learn. It’s all about the 218 in this game,” said Moore, who is African American. “You can be a star if you want to be, but it’s all about the 218.”