Why some New York members of Congress are against Pelosi

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Why some New York members of Congress are against Pelosi

Despite the state’s progressive reputation, its moderates may oppose the first woman House speaker returning to power.
November 27, 2018

As House Democrats prepare to vote to select the next speaker of the House, after a short-lived campaign from Rep. Marcia Fudge ended earlier this month, current Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi remains unopposed. However, she still faces resistance from some members of her party, several of whom are from New York. That criticism has not stemmed from the progressive left, as one might expect from such a blue state as New York, but rather from more moderate members of the House Democratic caucus.

A total of five New York Democrats currently or previously opposed Pelosi’s election as speaker. Rep. Brian Higgins, from Western New York, is the only one so far to reverse course – he pledged to back Pelosi after she agreed to prioritize legislation that he wants passed, including lowering the qualifying age for Medicare to 50. That leaves four Democrats who still have a bone to pick with the expected leader.

One is Rep. Tom Suozzi of Long Island. He is one of nine Democratic members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus that has threatened to vote against Pelosi if she does not agree to a set of rule changes the centrist caucus is advocating that it argues would ease bipartisan legislation getting a floor vote. Fifteen other Democrats in the caucus are not part of that ultimatum.

Suozzi told City & State that he has been under pressure from Democratic insiders to abandon his efforts and get behind Pelosi. But he said he does not have a problem with Pelosi herself, and that he would want to rule changes regardless of who sought the position. “I’m not part of the ‘Never Nancy’ brigade,” Suozzi said. “I’ve always been kind of a reformer and trying to make change of what I see as a structural problem.”

According to the Queens Chronicle, Suozzi told constituents in a town hall in October that he would “like to see new, young people” in leadership positions in the party, and would not commit to supporting Pelosi. But added he would not vote for any speaker who does not support the rule changes the Problem Solvers Caucus is pushing Pelosi to adopt.

The Problem Solvers Caucus is largely made up of moderates from both sides of the aisle, including Suozzi. Hofstra University Dean of Suburban Studies Larry Levy said that Suozzi has long had the reputation of being a moderate, even before his election to Congress in 2016. Suozzi’s current stance on Pelosi comes as no surprise to Levy, who noted that Suozzi’s suburban district tends to favor centrists. And that impels Suozzi to show independence from Pelosi because of her image as a liberal partisan.

Pelosi has long been portrayed by conservatives as a left-wing boogeyman from San Francisco and has become a polarizing figure, unpopular among Republicans and many independents. “Suozzi went to Congress and immediately planted his flag in what passes for the middle ground,” Levy said. “That’s what sells to the majority of suburban voters.”

Levy offered a similar assessment of Rep. Kathleen Rice, Long Island’s other Democratic representative. Unlike Suozzi, Rice is not a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus and has a more personal opposition to Pelosi. She is one of 16 Democrats from across the country that signed a letter specifically opposing Pelosi’s speaker bid, even in the absence of a viable alternative. It stated that Democrats ran on a “message of change” that they want to deliver on. Since Pelosi has been her party’s leader in the House of Representatives since 2003, some of her opponents argue that her return to the speakership would turn off anti-establishment swing voters.

Although Rice has not been as vocal as some other members of Congress since she took office in 2015, Levy said she, like Suozzi, has long been a middle-of-the-road Democrat. Levy suggested that Rice’s open opposition to Pelosi represents a change in strategy, however, to more loudly challenging her party from the right. “Either she is finding her old voice again, or she’s maneuvering herself for the future – or both,” Levy said.

Despite representing a suburban district, she has not yet faced a serious challenge and does not necessarily need to take a stand against Pelosi in order to appease moderate voters. However, she has also called for leadership change long before now, saying in 2017 that Democrats needed to replace Pelosi if the party wants to win elections. Rice was not available for comment.

The two other New York Democrats who still oppose Pelosi are both newly-elected members who won hard-fought battles in traditionally conservative districts. Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi unseated Rep. Claudia Tenney in Central New York, while Max Rose defeated Rep. Dan Donovan on Staten Island and in southern Brooklyn. Both men also campaigned on the promise that they would not support Pelosi’s leadership.

Tenney continually suggested that Brindisi would take office and become beholden to Pelosi’s agenda. Brindisi vigorously fought back against those accusations and now appears to making good on his promise to oppose Pelosi. Utica College professor Luke Perry said association with Pelosi could be a political liability to Brindisi.

“Where she’s from and how she communicates and represents the Democratic Party for some raises concerns because the area she represents in San Francisco is not like the 22nd District or other part of the country,” Perry explained. He added that he finds it very unlikely that Brindisi will flip and support Pelosi, like Higgins did. Brindisi’s campaign did not return a request for comment.

Staten Island posed a similar problem for Rose, who ran in the last Republican stronghold in New York City. He tried to distance himself from party politics, focusing on hyper-local issues and presenting himself as independent. That included vowing not to support Pelosi. “I made a promise to my constituents that I would not vote for Nancy Pelosi and I will not break that pledge,” Rose said in a statement to City & State.

College of Staten Island professor Richard Flanagan said that strategy plays well in the district, and that even Republicans who represented the district flaunted their independence. Rose’s decision to oppose his party’s leadership makes sense in that context. And he is also not the first Democrat from Staten Island to take a stand against Pelosi. Then-Rep. Michael McMahon voted against Pelosi for speaker in 2010.

Despite the wave of moderate opposition across the state, and across the country, Pelosi is still widely expected to be elected speaker, especially with the absence of a Democratic challenger to take her place. The anti-Pelosi movement has also lost momentum recently, with Rep. Seth Moulton, its leader, now negotiating with her. However, if Pelosi does in fact get enough votes (she needs 218), moderate lawmakers like Rice, Rose and Brindisi can still make their stand without fear of actually defeating her.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is deputy state politics reporter at City & State.