Nancy Pelosi needs to pass the baton

Part of being a good and seasoned leader is knowing when to pass the baton to a new generation. If the Democ...

Posted: Nov 23, 2018 1:56 AM
Updated: Nov 23, 2018 1:56 AM

Part of being a good and seasoned leader is knowing when to pass the baton to a new generation. If the Democrats want to remain relevant, dynamic and in tune with a changing America, Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders should pass the baton. And if they don't, they must learn to share power.

With Pelosi positioning herself once again to become speaker of the House, questions remain as to whether she should assume this position. In a letter to their Democratic colleagues, 16 incoming and current members of Congress -- mostly moderate and male -- thanked Pelosi for her years of service but argued the time has come for new leadership in their caucus. "We promised to change the status quo, and we intend to deliver on that promise," they wrote, claiming their Democratic victory in the midterm elections came from candidates who said they would support new leadership in Congress.

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While there is little doubt that Pelosi is a capable leader who has raised millions of dollars for her caucus and was a guiding force behind the passage of Obamacare, she is not an example of future leadership.

Certainly, she is not the future of the Democratic Party, which has just experienced its largest gains in Congress since Watergate. The 2019 House Democrats will be the most diverse they have ever been -- with a record number of women, young women of color and LGBTQ people taking their seats following an election driven by a departure from politics as usual.

But Pelosi is only part of the issue. The entire Democratic Party is in need of a leadership overhaul -- one that incorporates individuals who reflect the diverse array of people and ideas that exist within it.

If you have any doubt as to why, just take a look at where Democrat leaders have failed both to represent and defend core parts of their base. Black lawmakers slammed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer for calling Rep. Maxine Waters "not American" after she advocated for harassment of pro-Trump politicians and for remaining silent when Donald Trump attacked her.

Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, who has avoided the negative attacks Pelosi faces, was caught kneecapping a progressive congressional candidate and forcing him out of his race in support of moderate candidates. Hoyer defended his actions on the grounds that the party needs to support candidates who will win the general election in "tough" districts. And Democrats have failed to invest in races in the South.

For years, the party supported Wall Street and lost touch with working people and the poor. Democrats embraced welfare reform and "tough on crime" policies that devastated marginalized communities, and financial deregulation that created more income inequality, eroded unions and paved the way for Trump.

The Democrats have also ignored outreach to their base -- including communities of color -- opting instead to chase the elusive suburban soccer mom and field bland, unwinnable candidates with weak and stale messages. A postmortem of the 2016 election criticized the Democrats for, among other things, failing to prioritize fighting voter suppression, embrace social movements or expand and energize the base, turning off working-class voters with a hawkish stance, ignoring rural America and the youth-driven Bernie Sanders movement, and placing corporate profits over the needs of the public.

Conventional wisdom dictated that only moderate white Democratic candidates -- such as former senatorial candidates Michelle Nunn in Georgia, Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Phil Bredesen in Tennessee could win in the South and Midwest. However, these candidates did not necessarily speak to or reflect the diversity of the party -- particularly African-Americans, who consistently are reliable Democratic voters.

But 2019 presents a chance for a reset. The newly elected members of the House are not the usual suspects -- they are everyday people whose presence demands new policies and threatens to upend the way Washington does business.

Consider Lucy McBath, a progressive black woman activist who lost her son Jordan Davis to racialized vigilante gun violence, and defeated Rep. Karen Handel in the red Georgia 6th Congressional District. As a gun control advocate who forged a multiracial coalition, McBath offers badly needed perspectives and strategies for federal legislation to tackle the epidemic of gun proliferation. While she did not sign the letter calling for Pelosi's ouster, McBath is a movement leader whose life experience and knack for working with people warrants a position of influence in the new Congress.

And it's not just McBath. Congress now has its first Native American members of Congress, and its first Muslim women members, including Somali-American and former refugee Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.

Then there's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated one of the most powerful House Democrats and now supports efforts to "primary" out-of-touch Democratic incumbents. She participated in a sit-in in Pelosi's office to demand a "Green New Deal," which would wean the US economy off fossil fuels in a few decades.

Although Ocasio-Cortez is supporting Pelosi for speaker -- noting that all challenges to the leader are coming from her right, in an effort to steer the party in a more conservative, corporate-friendly direction -- the freshman lawmaker should have opportunities to assume leadership roles.

For example, Rep. Ro Khanna of California said Pelosi should create a Green New Deal select committee and make Ocasio-Cortez the chair. "Pelosi should not only create this committee, but also appoint @Ocasio2018 as Chair," Khanna tweeted. "That is the boldness voters want. We need to shake up Congress & give the millennial generation a chance to lead. They have the most at stake re climate change."

It would be wise for congressional Democrats to assess their leadership across the board, and channel the energy of millennials, women, black and brown activists coming to Washington. Bold, fresh ideas are crucial to fight the GOP assault on voting rights in the South and across the nation, and Trump's war on democracy and the rule of law.

Democrats must follow the lead of the new blood in their ranks, and that includes incorporating new leadership while also learning from Pelosi and the old guard.

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