But women may not end up with much of a voice in congressional leadership if House Democrats aren’t careful ― a scenario that would come across as both tone-deaf and absurd in the wake of this month’s midterm elections.
There are eight House Democratic leadership races and, barring something dramatic, the top three posts are already accounted for: Rep. Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is likely the next speaker, Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.) is likely the next majority leader and Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.) is likely the next majority whip. That trifecta has remained in place for years.
It’s the next tier of races where women have a real chance at joining leadership, but they are at risk of being pushed out by more influential male colleagues.
The race for the fourth highest post, assistant Democratic leader, is between two men, Reps. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) and David Cicilline (R.I.). Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.) had previously spent weeks laying the groundwork to run for the seat. But right after the midterms, Luján, a top Pelosi ally and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, jumped into the race and effectively forced her out.
Bustos, who is DCCC’s chair of heartland engagement and who just won her Midwest district by 24 points despite it being a Donald Trump stronghold, announced a new bid last week to lead the DCCC. Reps. Denny Heck (Wash.), who led DCCC’s recruitment effort, and Suzan DelBene (Wash.), who is vice chair of the New Democrat Coalition, were already in the race. A day after Bustos announced, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.) got in, too.
Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), a longtime progressive leader, spent weeks building support for her bid for the fifth highest post, chair of the Democratic Caucus. But after the midterms, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), who has been floated as a potential future speaker, jumped into the race. Similarly, after Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.) spent months wooing supporters in her bid for Democratic Caucus vice chair, Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.), who is the whip in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, got into the race.
That leaves one more race, for co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. There are three seats open and five contenders. Just one, Rep. Debbie Dingell (Mich.), is a woman.
To be clear, anyone can run for any of these leadership posts. There’s nothing wrong with male lawmakers throwing their hats into races. The problem, if men sweep these seats, is the collective message that Democrats would be sending: that men deserve to hold the highest ranks in the party, even after women just won the House back for them. For the first time in U.S. history, more than 100 women have been elected to the House, and of the 37 seats that Democrats flipped, female candidates won 23.
That sentiment isn’t lost on some of the congresswomen eager to join leadership and shape the party’s agenda heading into the 2020 elections.
“I do think in the so-called ‘year of the woman,’ we as a caucus need to show Democrats across the country that we value women in top leadership roles,” Bustos said. “I think I’m the right person at the right time... The path to the majority went through the heartland and went through my gender.”
If Bustos wins her DCCC bid, she would be just the second woman to chair the group since its formation in 1866. Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.) led the DCCC 15 years ago.
“We need to have diversity in our leadership,” Bustos said. “How this turns out at the end of the month is very, very important in terms of what we show the American public.”
Lee, who is African-American, said she’s running to lead the Democratic Caucus because she has the experience and background as a 20-year congresswoman. She emphasized that it’s time for more diversity at the top, noting that her caucus has never elected an African-American woman to leadership.
“That would be a big problem,” Lee said of the prospect of men filling up leadership roles in the new Congress. “The Democratic Caucus has a chance to make that not happen.”
“I’m running for vice chair to ensure that every member has a voice in shaping our agenda,” Clark said. “And that certainly includes the perspective of the record number of women in our caucus.”
How this turns out at the end of the month is very, very important in terms of what we show the American public. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.)
For her part, Pelosi is staying out of these races as she focuses on her own leadership bid. Her office declined to comment on the prospect of how bad it would look if men filled the vast majority of top roles beneath her.
At least one congresswoman is considering taking on Pelosi for speaker. Rep. Marcia Fudge (Ohio), who is African-American, tested the waters Thursday by slamming Pelosi for not doing enough on issues of race.
“My concern about the caucus is the same concern I have about the country,” Fudge told HuffPost in an interview. “Just as there is this undertone of racism in the country, there’s also that in our caucus.”
Asked by reporters about Fudge’s challenge, Pelosi seemed unfazed.
“Come on in!” she said. “The water’s warm.”
HuffPost’s “Her Stories” newsletter brings you even more reporting from around the world on the important issues affecting women. Sign up for it here.