Pelosi Rules: Why Steve Israel got a plum, and Joe Crowley got the shaft (again)

Joe Crowley. (Azi Paybarah, via flickr)
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There’s an old saying in politics that when elephants fight, ants get crushed. Joe Crowley—a physically imposing six-term congressman who has the ear of the House’s second-ranking Democrat, raises enormous sums of cash for his colleagues, and wields considerable influence locally through his role as chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party—isn’t exactly an ant. But when it comes to the endless battle between Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, he might as well be.

Crowley was blocked last week—not for the first time and maybe not for the last—from gaining a top leadership role in the House. He’d wanted to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2012 cycle, and on paper he was eminently qualified. The post requires a prodigious fund-raising capacity, and Crowley, with his easy access to New York’s financial-services industry, brought in more money for the DCCC in 2010 than all but two Democrats in the entire House. (The two who raised more were Pelosi and Chris Van Hollen, who chaired the DCCC and is now stepping aside from that role after two cycles.) Crowley has also thrown himself into other party-building efforts, helping to recruit and mentor Democratic candidates for the House over the past several cycles. He was, in other words, a natural choice to lead the DCCC.

But the job went instead to another New Yorker, Steve Israel. The Long Island Democrat is no slouch himself when it comes to raising money, but he brought in a fraction of the amount Crowley did for the DCCC in 2010. Israel got the job because Pelosi kept hers—and as long as Pelosi has anything to say about it, Crowley won’t be moving up.

The top Democrat in the House has the power to appoint the DCCC chairman. It’s an assignment that Democrats with leadership aspirations covet, because a successful run as DCCC chairman can lead to a promotion to one of the party’s elected leadership slots. Just consider the example of Rahm Emanuel, who ran the DCCC when Democrats took back the House in 2006 and was promptly elected caucus chairman—leapfrogging the already-elected chairman (Connecticut’s John Larson, who took a demotion to vice chairman) and putting him in line for future advancement. Had Emanuel not left the House to become President Obama’s chief of staff in 2006, he conceivably would have been positioned to capitalize on discontent within the caucus and claim the minority leader’s post after this month’s election.



Instead, Pelosi was able to keep her grip on the Democrats’ top House post, despite the 60-plus seat drubbing the party suffered. With Emanuel gone and Van Hollen’s reputation lessened by the midterm debacle, the only obvious candidate left to oppose Pelosi was Hoyer, who has been the House’s No. 2 Democrat since 2002. But Hoyer was a nonstarter. His tense relationship with Pelosi, who beat him in a fateful 2001 leadership contest, is well-known. Had he challenged her, the soft Pelosi loyalists who might have been willing to turn on her under certain circumstances would instead have rallied around her. So Hoyer settled for staying in the No. 2 slot and Pelosi was elected minority leader last week with only token opposition.

This sealed Crowley’s fate. Pelosi is well aware that the DCCC chairmanship can be a leadership stepping-stone. This is why, knowing that he could use the slot to expand his power base and ultimately threaten her grip on the caucus, Pelosi was reluctant to appoint Emanuel before the 2006 cycle. She first sounded out other, more obviously loyal colleagues, only turning to Emanuel when it became clear that caucus sentiment strongly favored him. Fear that they were becoming a permanent minority party in the House (which they’d last controlled in 1994) had taken hold among Democrats, who saw Emanuel, a Clinton White House alum renowned for his strategic and fund-raising acumen, as their only hope. Emanuel played this brilliantly, signaling to colleagues and media members that he didn’t want the job that badly, ultimately forcing Pelosi to offer him some extra enticements to take it.

Crowley has his fans in the House, but when it came to the DCCC chairmanship for '12, he hardly inspired the sort of support that Emanuel had a few years earlier. Thus Pelosi was free to snub him.

The real question is why she was so eager to do so.

This is where the Pelosi-Hoyer history, which dates back nearly 50 years (to when they were both young Marylanders interning in the office of Senator Daniel Brewster), comes in. After the 1998 midterms, in which their party unexpectedly picked up five seats, Democrats began believing they would take back the House in the 2000 cycle. In that event, Richard Gephardt, who had been the minority leader since '94, would move up to speaker, with David Bonior, Gephardt’s No. 2, bumping up to majority leader. That would leave the position of majority whip open. (The majority party, since it gets to pick the speaker, gets an extra leadership post.) So as the 2000 campaign played out, Pelosi and Hoyer waged a campaign for majority whip—even though they’d only actually face off on a ballot if the Democrats won a majority in the House.

It was in this same time period that Crowley, then an ambitious 36-year-old, took his seat Congress. He owed his victory in 1998 to the handiwork of his powerful mentor, the Queens Democratic boss Tom Manton, who’d waited until after the filing deadline to announce his retirement from Congress, and then immediately (before any of the many would-be successors who’d been waiting for him to retire even knew about it) convened a dead-of-the-night meeting of the Queens County Democratic Committee to anoint Crowley as his replacement on the ballot. If he’d had to face a real primary in ’98, who knows whether Crowley would ever have made it to Washington. Instead, the skids were greased for him.

So it was only natural that Crowley arrived on Capitol Hill searching for another well-connected mentor, someone who might do for him on the national stage what Manton had just done for him in New York. Hoyer, who was then gearing up for the majority whip’s race against Pelosi, seemed like a perfect match. Gephardt and Bonior were entrenched; they weren’t looking for freshmen to mentor. But Hoyer was still building his team, and he seemed to be going places. He was also a good fit regionally (a fellow East Coaster) and ideologically (as eager as Crowley to cultivate Wall Street, the financial-services industry, and the business community in general). So Crowley hitched his wagon to Hoyer’s star.

As it turned out, Democrats fell short of House control in the 2000 election, so that incarnation of Pelosi vs. Hoyer never came to a head. But their battle restarted months after the election, when it became clear that Bonior, faced with a hostile G.O.P. redistricting scheme in Michigan, would leave the House to mount a long-shot bid for governor of Michigan. The Pelosi-Hoyer fight was back on, and this time the stakes were higher: the No. 2 Democratic slot, and the inside track to ultimately succeed Gephardt in the top spot. Crowley threw himself into the Hoyer effort, serving as one of the Marylander’s whips, fully aware of what victory would mean to his own status—and future leadership prospects—in the House. The race, one of the most contentious leadership fights in memory, wore on for months before Pelosi, boosted by the unified support of California’s massive delegation and the relative scarcity of Hoyer-friendly Blue Dogs, engineered 118-95 victory.

From that moment on, Crowley’s growth was checked. A year later, after Republicans posted gains in the 2002 midterms, Gephardt stepped aside to run for president in 2004. Pelosi was elevated to minority leader without serious opposition, while Hoyer eased into the No. 2 slot. As leader, Pelosi worked feverishly to maintain that pecking order, packing the caucus’ top appointed posts with loyalists and coldly isolating Hoyer and his allies. No one, it could be argued, suffered more in this climate than Crowley.