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Climate Politics Almanac: The Democratic Leadership Battles

The changing of the guard, as Speaker Pelosi hands over the gavel

The national elections held on November 8th produced surprisingly strong midterm results for the incumbent party. Although Republicans won a majority in the House, it will be by a slim margin, raising the possibility that Democrats can win the majority back as soon as 2024.

On November 30, House Democrats will hold the most consequential leadership elections in decades. An unusually high number of congressional Democrats retired, and the current top leadership—Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md), and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.)—have announced they support a changing of the guard.1 The upcoming leadership elections create a rare opening for generational and ideological transformation.

A New Generation of Democratic Leadership

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) with her chosen successor, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). Credit: Alex Wong

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), and Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) have navigated a tense but effective partnership at the top of the House Democratic caucus for two decades. The team has successfully whipped votes toward numerous landmark policy accomplishments, but has also centralized power and decision-making in sometimes problematic ways and failed to cultivate future leaders.

Last week, Speaker Pelosi announced she would step down as leader, prompting many retrospectives on her historic and eventful 20-year tenure. Pelosi, age 82, will remain in Congress in an “emeritus role,” and her announcement was followed shortly by confirmations that Hoyer, age 83, and Clyburn, age 82, plan to pass the baton.

Over the summer, it was reported that House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a national security hawk who became a hero to the liberal resistance after leading the first Trump impeachment, would attempt to replace Pelosi. Last Wednesday, Schiff announced he would focus on a likely Senate run in 2024 rather than running for leadership. With Schiff out, there seems to be little doubt that the incoming leadership team will consist of Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) age 52, Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), age 59, and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), age 43.

Hakeem Jeffries, the next Democratic Leader

Jeffries represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, where the climate disaster Ida hit hard last fall. He would be the first Black person to lead a party in Congress. Before getting elected to office, Jeffries was a white-shoe corporate lawyer who helped litigate the Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” on behalf of Viacom CBS. He has been friendly with the Wall Street-funded, charter-backing Democrats for Education Reform since his time in the New York State Assembly, but is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). Criminal justice reform, in partnership with figures like Al Sharpton and New York City Mayor Eric Adams, has been his major priority since first winning office as an Assemblymember in 2006. His signature achievement is passage of the First Step Act, bipartisan sentencing reform from 2018. Later, Jeffries was a manager for the first Donald Trump impeachment.

After entering Congress by primarying an incumbent in 2012, Jeffries became openly hostile toward progressive populists like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), joining with Wall Street Democrat Josh Gottheimer to form a Super PAC in 2021 aimed at thwarting primary challenges from what he called the “hard left.” A revealing excerpt from a 2019 profile of Jeffries explained how he sees climate justice as somehow being a separate question from systemic racism:

The AOC wing’s main complaint with Jeffries is that although he talks often about climate change, he doesn’t endorse the Green New Deal. He doesn’t like feeling bullied into signing on. He believes that activists are too caught up in thinking about changing society around environmental goals, rather than the systemic racism that he wants to focus on.

“Jeffries is nowhere to be found on the defining issue of our time,” climate activists and Brooklyn natives Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Lena Olenick wrote in 2020. “As a marine biologist and a science teacher, we are deeply concerned about the lack of climate leadership from New York’s most powerful member of the House.” Grassroots organizations in his district spent “months of trying in vain to schedule a town hall with Jeffries.”

Jeffries is primarily financed by Wall Street, with additional large contributions from conservative pro-Israel PACs. 97 percent of his campaign contributions have come from large-dollar donors.2

Katherine Clark, minority whip

Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Credit: Jacquelyn Martin

Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark of Melrose, Mass., is set to become Jeffries’ deputy. After “Green New DealmakerEd Markey won election to the Senate in 2013, Clark won a special election to replace him representing the Fifth district of Massachusetts, which includes the sea level rise-threatened towns of Revere and Winthrop. Clark’s “adult in the room” demeanor seems to command respect across the caucus. Like Jeffries, Clark is a CPC Member, but unlike Jeffries, she is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, and doesn’t share his penchant for waging local proxy wars with the Sunrise Movement and other leftist forces. She has joined with other coastal progressives in pushing the Biden administration to take executive action to reduce plastics pollution.

The role of Assistant Speaker was formerly known as the Assistant Majority Leader, until 2006 when Pelosi changed the title. Clark was elected to the role in 2020.

Clark’s campaign contributions come from a mix of Democratic-aligned corporate and labor interests. The real-estate-backed Votesane PAC, progressive Jewish JStreet PAC, Raytheon, and the Teamsters are among her top contributors. 94 percent of her campaign contributions come from large-dollar contributors.

Pete Aguilar, caucus chair

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), the next Democratic caucus chair

Caucus Vice Chair Pete Aguilar was elected to Congress in 2014, flipping a Dem-leaning seat that was Republican-held after Aguilar and other Democrats had botched California’s top-two primary system two years earlier. Aguilar had previously served as the young mayor of Redlands, a Southern California city that ranks near the top of San Bernadino County’s vulnerability index for extreme drought and heat waves. Like Jeffries and Clark, Aguilar has a 95%+ lifetime rating from LCV. However, Aguilar is a New Democrat who endorsed Mike Bloomberg’s failed presidential bid, and seems primed to replace Hoyer as the emissary to the corporatist faction of the caucus, having recently voted against a modest bipartisan package to strengthen antitrust enforcement and give regulators more resources.

Unlike Jeffries and Clark, Aguilar has a reasonably healthy small-dollar effort, generating 17 percent of total contributions to his campaign committee. Top contributors to Aguilar include J Street, Votesane, unions, and the California utility Edison International.

Jeffries, Clark, and Aguilar all have not signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

Looking forward

Especially because a decade-plus in the wilderness seems more unlikely than it did a few weeks ago, these leadership elections have high stakes. If progressives succeed in lining up members in key posts, they will be primed to take charge the next time there is a governing moment.

To respond to the crisis our democracy is facing, candidates for leadership positions should be pressed to commit to a strong set of rules and reforms that enable more open, transparent, and democratic policymaking— and a more assertive “First Branch” that governs effectively the next time Democrats hold power, rather than deferring to the other two branches.

Additionally, because the coming decade also represents a decisive window for addressing the climate crisis, creative avenues must be explored to advance climate policy through housing, banking, transportation, insurance, schools, agriculture, worker security, a just transition, environmental cleanup, and more. These leadership elections therefore must take place with an eye toward potential levers for climate action, and should ideally elevate Green New Deal champions to leadership posts wherever possible.  

In our next post, we will look at remaining vacancies for positions leading the Democrats on the House Oversight, Budget, Science, Transportation and Infrastructure Committees.

1 Although Clyburn is going grudgingly—he has announced he will run against Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) for the number 4 slot in House Democratic leadership, the Assistant Democratic Leader.

2 By way of comparison, large-dollar donors have only contributed 25 percent of the campaign contributions to Jeffries’s antagonist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

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