Two congressional leaders from New York is not too many

US President Barack Obama with Rep. Joe Crowley (left), Sen. Chuck Schumer (center) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (right) in January, 2017.
US President Barack Obama with Rep. Joe Crowley (left), Sen. Chuck Schumer (center) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (right) in January, 2017.
US President Barack Obama with Rep. Joe Crowley (left), Sen. Chuck Schumer (center) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (right) in January, 2017.

Two congressional leaders from New York is not too many

Some say Crowley joining Schumer as the Democratic leader of one house of Congress is too much New York City. Here’s why they're wrong.
May 2, 2018

With House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi recently turning 78, the political cognoscenti wonder when she may retire and who will replace her. Rep. Joe Crowley, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, who represents a district in Queens and the Bronx, is widely viewed as Pelosi’s most likely successor. Crowley is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. Nos. 2 and 3, Reps. Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, are 78 and 77, respectively. An energetic fundraiser and campaigner for Democratic candidates, Crowley is said by insiders to be well-liked among his colleagues.

But there is an objection one hears about Crowley: Like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, he’s a white man from New York City. The first part of this complaint – that power should not be concentrated solely among white men – has considerably more merit than the latter. But as white men go, one with Crowley’s record and district is as good as any. And critics who believe Crowley’s background is a political problem are overestimating the knowledge – and antipathy for New York – of most American voters.

In The New York Times this week, Michael Tomasky argued that Democrats would be politically foolish to select Crowley as their next leader, emphasizing their need for geographic diversity. The Democratic Party is struggling to compete in the heartland, so Tomasky maintains that the congressional leadership team should reflect the desire to reach a wider stretch of the country. He writes:

“The Democrats are coming off an election in which their presidential candidate won only 487 of the nation’s 3,141 counties. Four years before, Barack Obama won just 689 against Mitt Romney. The party is in severe geographic retreat, and it has happened with alarming speed. … For example, in the 114th Congress (2015-2016), the Democrats had nine leadership positions – and only one was held by a representative from a state that didn’t have a coastline.”

Tomasky is undoubtedly right that the Democrats’ geographic shrinkage in the last decade is a huge problem for the party. In 2010, Tomasky notes, Democrats controlled House seats “in large swaths of North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, both Dakotas, Indiana, West Virginia and Appalachian Ohio,” which they lost in the two midterm elections during Barack Obama’s presidency.

But there is little reason to believe that the geographic distribution of Democratic congressional leaders is responsible for that. The party lost seats in midterm elections during which it held the White House because that’s what parties usually do. House Democrats had the same leadership team when they picked up a host of seats in 2006 and 2008.

Polls suggest that voters mostly don't know enough about national politics to be influenced by where a party’s congressional delegation leader comes from. A 2014 poll by the Pew Center for Research found that only 40 percent of Americans could correctly identify which party controls both houses of Congress. Swing voters, Pew observes, are even less likely than committed partisans to know about politics.

The primary factors driving the partisan ebbs and flows of congressional elections are how voters feel about the economy and the party in the White House. While the effect of voters’ views of the home state or district of a party hasn’t been studied as such, experts say it’s unlikely to matter.

“I have not seen any academic paper that suggests that voters utilize information about the home states of potential congressional leaders when making vote decisions in congressional races,” said University of Colorado Boulder political science professor Kenneth Bickers. “There are lots of papers in refereed journals that voters utilize impressions about the ideological tilt of national parties when voting in local elections. It would be an extrapolation to localize that phenomenon to New York City politicians, and the extrapolation would depend on a clear sense in the minds of voters of how New York City politicians are different from politicians from the same party elsewhere. I very much doubt that very many voters hold that sort of distinction in their minds.”

Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, echoed Bickers. “I don’t know of any data to support the notion that swing voters care specifically about where a party leader is from,” he said. “Nancy Pelosi has of course been a favorite target for the GOP and conservatives, partly because she’s easy to slam as a ‘San Francisco liberal.’ But if Pelosi were a super-liberal Democrat from Austin as opposed to San Francisco, I’m not sure it would make much of a difference in how she’s portrayed or how voters feel about her.” Currently, despite Pelosi’s deep underwater personal approval ratings, Democrats are well ahead in the congressional generic ballot polling.

The same Southern and Midwestern states where Democrats have lost House seats just gave their Electoral College votes to a lifelong New Yorker. If Midwestern Republicans don’t mind President Donald Trump being from New York, then it’s hard to imagine Midwestern Democrats minding that Schumer and Crowley are too.

It’s true that a congressional leader’s personal unpopularity can become an albatross to the party. Newt Gingrich was a useful foil to the Democrats in the 1990s, as Pelosi is to Republicans today.

To the extent that the personal attributes of a congressional leader may make him or her a liability, Crowley is unlikely to give the GOP much ammunition. He has none of Gingrich’s smugness and grandiosity. Nor are Schumer and Crowley avatars of coastal elite liberalism like vineyard owner and Pacific Heights resident Pelosi. They are from middle-class families in the outer boroughs, with relatively moderate records. Crowley – resident of East Elmhurst, son of an NYPD detective, graduate of Queens College – can work a union hall, apparently: On Monday, he received the endorsement of two dozen unions.

Other things being equal, it would be better for a party to avoid having their delegations in both houses of Congress come from the same city. But you could hardly pick a better place than New York City if you had to choose one. Queens and the Bronx are 25 percent and 9 percent non-Hispanic white and 48 percent and 35 percent foreign-born, respectively. In Crowley’s district, there are elementary schools with more languages spoken than by translators at the United Nations. Schumer’s Brooklyn has similar demographics. All the boroughs have rich people, poor people, and everything in between.

And, false media portrayals notwithstanding, New York City – where Trump won 19 percent of the vote – is not a liberal bubble on par with San Francisco or Seattle. Perhaps that helps explain why Schumer is nationally more popular than Pelosi and his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell.

Nor have congressional leaders from middle America necessarily led the Democrats to victory. Former Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle hailed from South Dakota, while his House counterpart Dick Gephardt represented Missouri. No one seemed to mind that both Democrats came from the Midwest. But if party officials thought choosing Midwesterners from Republican-leaning states would help them win elections, they were mistaken. In the 2002 midterms, despite facing a party whose president assumed office after losing the popular vote, Democrats lost seats in both houses of Congress.

One reason, according to progressive activists at the time, was that many leading Democrats, including Daschle and Gephardt, failed to articulate a clear alternative to the GOP, most notably by voting to authorize the Iraq war. Some analysts attributed this weakness to the fear of being portrayed by opponents as soft on national defense held by Daschle, Gephardt and other Democrats in moderate and conservative districts and states. Pelosi need not worry about losing to a Republican in her staunchly liberal district, which allows her to stake out strong positions and relentlessly whip votes for fraught measures such as health care reform. Crowley, whose district is safely Democratic, could do the same.

So there is no reason to assume Crowley would be a liability for his party.

The more serious concern is that, as Tomasky points out, a Democratic Party led by two white men is an anachronism. Since, as Tomasky acknowledges, the Republicans are hardly competing for voters of color – and it is white voters whom Democrats are struggling to win back – that’s a policy problem more than a political one.

But Crowley’s political success to date is largely attributable to his ability to represent the interests of a diverse constituency. On Wednesday, for example, his office issued statements in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Jewish American Heritage Month. In 2012, he backed Grace Meng to be New York’s first Asian-American woman in Congress over his own cousin Elizabeth. He led the effort to protect Hindus and Sikhs from hate crimes, was an early backer of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and, as head of the Queens Democratic Party, helped to bring his borough’s state Senate delegation onboard for same-sex marriage.

New York, so often overlooked by politicians in favor of swing states like Ohio and early primary states like New Hampshire, deserves its turn in the spotlight. In the House, New York’s large population and Democratic leaning mean it simply has more Democratic members to vie for the leadership than any other state except California. In the Senate, malapportionment means that a senator elected from New York or California has a vastly more difficult task – overcoming, on average, more formidable competitors – than a senator from Idaho or Rhode Island. So it stands to reason that Senate leaders, chosen for their political acumen, may tend to be drawn more frequently from larger states. As the New Yorker-in-chief has demonstrated, having the best biography or hailing from a typical hometown is not the most important attribute when it comes to winning elections.

Ben Adler
is City & State’s senior editor.