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

In 2005, Crowley, with Hoyer’s blessing and tacit support, set his sights on the caucus’ No. 4 elected post: vice-chairman. In terms of actual power and responsibility, it’s a totally worthless job, something akin to student council secretary. But it represents a toehold in leadership, a platform from which to launch a future campaign for a more prominent slot. On the surface, it looked like Crowley’s race to lose. He’d inherited many of Hoyer’s friends and had made some of his own through his fund-raising work. Plus, the opposition seemed split, with Illinois’ Jan Schakowsky and Connecticut’s John Larson both having a claim on some of Pelosi’s allies—Schakowsky because of her avowed liberalism, Larson because of his support from John Murtha (who had provided critical help to Pelosi in '01, mainly because of his longstanding disdain for Hoyer). In advance of the January 2006 caucus vote, Crowley led the way in public endorsements and was widely considered the favorite.

In reality, he never had a chance. While staying publicly mum, Pelosi made a cold-blooded calculation just before the vote. Personally and ideologically, she was close to Schakowsky—but Schakowsky’s husband was facing check-kiting charges stemming from his efforts to prop up a nonprofit organization. So Pelosi, who hoped to take back the House in '06 by running against the Republican “culture of corruption,” quietly pulled the rug out from under Schakowsky (who had believed she had her friend’s blessing). On the first ballot, Crowley led, which was no surprise. What was a surprise (to anyone outside Pelosi’s inner circle) was that Larson, who was widely assumed to have fewer than two dozen supporters, finished second. Instantly, it became clear what was going on. On the second ballot, Larson beat Crowley, 116-87. The margin, not at all coincidentally, was nearly identical to the Pelosi-Hoyer result from '01.

Crowley didn’t give up after this. While remaining adamantly loyal to Hoyer, he took steps to ingratiate himself with Pelosi, hoping to gain enough good will to convince her to let him into leadership in the future. He redoubled his DCCC efforts, recruiting and mentoring candidates in the Democratic-friendly 2006 and 2008 cycles, earning appointment as a DCCC finance co-chairman, and even winning a chief deputy whip slot under Pelosi. Publicly, he flattered Pelosi at every opportunity, praising her leadership and scoffing at any suggestion of tension between them.

After the 2008 election, Crowley decided to take another shot. He allowed his name to be floated for the DCCC chairmanship, but Pelosi quickly persuaded Chris Van Hollen, who had first won it in '06, to stay on. (In case you’re wondering, Pelosi never felt that threatened by Van Hollen, who is also from Hoyer’s Maryland, for two reasons: when he came to the House in 2003, Van Hollen made it clear that he was more interested in moving to the Senate than in climbing the House leadership ranks; and he’s hardly close with Hoyer, who helped keep Van Hollen out of Maryland’s Senate race in 2006, throwing his weight behind Rep. Ben Cardin as soon as Sen. Paul Sarbanes announced his retirement.)

Then came Emanuel’s decision to leave the House for the Obama administration; Larson—who didn’t resist when Emanuel leapfrogged him two years earlier—moved into Emanuel’s spot as caucus chairman without opposition, leaving the vice chairman’s post open. Crowley began running, but immediately concluded that California’s Xavier Becerra had the inside track. So Crowley pulled back and threw his support behind Becerra, hoping that his energetic endorsement would impress Hispanics in the caucus, who might then aid him in a future leadership contest. When the vote was held, Crowley formally nominated Becerra, who crushed Ohio’s Marcy Kaptur.

Within weeks of his victory, Becerra was in discussions with Obama’s team about the position of U.S. trade representative. He seemed certain to take the job. Crowley wasted no time forming a whip team to campaign for the slot. Becerra ulimately got cold feet and decided to stay in the House, but not before Pelosi made it clear that Crowley would face a challenge from one of her allies if the vice chairmanship were to open. We’ll never know what would have happened, but here’s guessing that Crowley would have fallen short, again.

Which brings us to what’s happened these last few weeks. Before the midterms, conventional wisdom held that Pelosi would step down as leader (and retire from the House) if Democrats lost their majority. Conventional wisdom also held that Hoyer, now 71, would replace her, largely by default. If this had happened, Crowley would have reaped a windfall. The DCCC chairmanship? That would only have been the first of many goodies for him.

But when Pelosi opted to stay, Crowley was screwed. Two other Democrats pushed for the DCCC gig: Israel and Florida’s Debbie Wasserman-Schultz. Like Crowley, Wasserman-Schultz is more moderate (or less liberal) and more business-friendly than Pelosi. Each of them would have done well under Hoyer. But with Pelosi calling the shots, Israel had the edge. Israel had initially backed Hoyer in that '01 race, but not as adamantly Crowley had. Nor did Hoyer take him under his wing like he did with Crowley. After '01, Israel positioned himself as a steadfast Pelosi ally, and when Pelosi decided she wanted to stay on as leader this month, Israel was one of the lieutenants who called around to members on her behalf, making sure the votes were in place. No surprise, then, that Pelosi tapped him for the DCCC spot.

This one might be particularly painful for Crowley. For about 24 hours after the Democrats’ Nov. 2 drubbing, it seemed like he might finally be rid of the top obstacle to his advancement in the House. Instead, she stuck around and handed a different ambitious New Yorker the keys to the DCCC. Because of term limits, both Larson and Becerra will have to give up their posts in two years. It’s not hard to see Becerra simply sliding into the role of caucus chairman. It’s also not hard to see Israel, if the Democrats fare decently in the 2012 election, parlaying his DCCC gig into vice chairman’s spot—which would put him in prime position to climb higher when Pelosi and Hoyer (now both in their 70's) step down.

Crowley, meanwhile, could be left in the cold. All because he picked the wrong rabbi 12 years ago.