Before the end of the month, House Democrats will hold elections for contested chairmanships on several key committees. That means the gamesmanship for those seats — which has been happening largely below the surface for months — is finally breaking into the open.
Many eyes are on the race for the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The post opened up because current Chairman Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) lost his June primary race to a progressive challenger who highlighted his hawkish views. Critics of traditionally assertive U.S. foreign policy hope that shock loss spurs Democratic leadership and the new committee chief to use the post to advocate for a less-aggressive approach to global affairs that better reflects liberal values.
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) is the favored candidate among progressives, and on Friday, 47 groups working on national security and Democratic politics endorsed him in a joint letter shared exclusively with HuffPost.
Castro is competing for the position against two more senior and more traditional colleagues, Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Brad Sherman (D-Calif.).
“Too often, the voices of those impacted by U.S. foreign policy are left out of the conversations in Washington. We believe Rep. Castro can protect our families and communities by promoting diplomacy and other nonviolent means ― rooted in cooperation ― to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives,” the Friday statement from Castro’s backers reads.
Prominent signees to the letter, which was organized by the Center for International Policy, include Justice Democrats, the Sunrise Movement, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Peace Action.
The Foreign Affairs Committee oversees the State Department and related agencies and helps shape the conversation about foreign policy in Washington ― particularly when the House of Representatives and the White House are controlled by the same party, as will be the case come January. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other top Democrats will deliberate and appoint the new chairperson during meetings the week of Nov. 30.
“As Black, indigenous, and other communities of color face increased militarism at home, and as U.S. militarism abroad has led to disastrous endless wars, we are impressed with Rep. Castro’s transparent and engaging campaign for [committee] chair that focuses on the root causes of militarism,” the signees wrote.
The organizations note that as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Castro assertively challenged President Donald Trump’s hard-line treatment of asylum-seekers and immigrants, traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border and repeatedly blasting the Department of Homeland Security.
The endorsement letter also highlights how anti-war activists and politicians have successfully pushed the broader Democratic Party towards a more dovish view of America’s role in the world through years of advocacy and high-profile wins.
Many of the positions the letter praises Castro for holding have gone from being perceived as politically risky to becoming mainstream among elected Democrats, like wanting to limit the president’s authority to wage war, supporting former President Barack Obama’s nuclear accord with Iran, seeking to cut the Pentagon budget, questioning surveillance by national security officials, seeking troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq and opposing Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-backed intervention in Yemen.
That changing orthodoxy paradoxically makes it harder for Castro to win: Meeks and Sherman, his rivals, express many positions resembling his and have courted progressives in recent months. Though Castro has bolstered his profile in the press and during congressional hearings, Meeks remains the clear front-runner in the race, just as he was months ago, Capitol Hill sources say.
Meeks is strongly supported by members of the Congressional Black Caucus ― who see the opportunity for the first-ever Black lawmaker in the committee chairmanship ― and is close to Pelosi’s leadership team. (Sherman’s chances are slim, largely due to his tensions with colleagues.) Meeks has emphasized his regard for often-overlooked regions of the world, like Latin America, and his support for diplomacy, including the fact that, unlike outgoing chairman Engel and Sherman, he voted for the Iran deal.
Meeks is not seen as hawkish, but as a longtime party stalwart is also unlikely to press President-elect Joe Biden the way activists hope Castro would if he were chairman.
Biden has focused on foreign policy for much of his long career. He generally questions grandiose international adventures while firmly believing the U.S. should be the dominant player on the world stage. Some progressives are nervous about the choices he might make in standing up to adversaries abroad, particularly China, and how far he will emphasize human rights over sustaining alliances with unsavory partners.
Many on the left had hoped that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Biden’s chief Democratic primary opponent, would win the party nomination and the presidency and then use the job to establish a more modest U.S. posture internationally.
The letter on Friday notes two particular areas where Castro has indicated he would chart a particularly different course from his colleagues: sanctions and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Sanctions are a favored policy tool among both parties and rarely questioned despite their often-deadly consequences, but are under new scrutiny by progressives. The U.S. relationship with Israel has bedeviled Democratic politics in recent years, as even cautious former officials urge a new approach while Republicans accuse liberals of anti-Semitism.
To many outside advocates, Castro represents the best possible chance for change and a check on establishment thinking.
“The next Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee must be somebody who is committed to progressive foreign policy principles,” Amira Hassan, political director at Justice Democrats, told HuffPost in an email. “Rep. Castro has shown a willingness to engage with progressive organizations and bring in diverse perspectives and voices to help chart a new path forward.”
Yasmine Taeb, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, said Castro could pioneer “a fundamental shift.”
“Rep. Castro embodies a progressive vision for the U.S. in the world, one that prioritizes diplomacy and multilateralism over militarism,” Taeb wrote in an email. “After four years of destructive policies that have undermined America’s standing, Rep. Castro’s leadership will not just get us back on track but will lead us forward.”
Spokespeople for Meeks and Sherman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Read the full letter below.