Rep. Joe Crowley — buoyed by a caucus thirsty for change and his rising national profile — is angling to become the next House Democratic leader if Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats fall short.
Whether Democrats win the House majority or not, the affable Queens party boss and current Democratic Caucus chairman would have to first go through the party’s long-time septuagenarian leaders — Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn — who’ve shown no hurry to head for the exits. In fact, the three have already started sending strong signals that if Democrats take the House they’re prepared to beat back a younger generation clamoring for new leaders.
But in interviews with nearly 30 Democratic lawmakers and aides, almost all said it’s no secret that Crowley — a 6-foot-5, lifelong New Yorker who towers over many of his colleagues and can often be heard walking through the Capitol singing a tune in his trademark Queens accent — is doing everything possible to position himself for if and when there’s a shakeup at the top.
For Crowley, this moment has been two decades in the making and could be his best shot to ascend to the top of Democratic leadership ranks.
“I think Pelosi and Hoyer ought to take the message from [Paul] Ryan’s retirement and realize it’s time for this caucus to move on. And I think Crowley fits the bill to be our next leader,” said Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), an outspoken critic of current leadership.
The much-talked about topic is so sensitive that several Democrats would discuss it only on condition of anonymity. Still, nearly 20 lawmakers from various corners of the caucus privately agreed with Vela that Crowley has a strong shot at becoming Democratic leader, though there was less consensus on whether that would happen after this election or in 2020.
Crowley, 56, has said he won’t run against Pelosi, the current House minority leader, for the speakership. And he hasn’t declared any intention of challenging Hoyer, the current whip, or Clyburn, the assistant minority leader, either.
But if the top job opens up — either because Democrats lose and Pelosi decides to retire, or they win but she doesn’t have the 218 votes to be speaker — Crowley’s allies say they‘re confident he would pounce. Having to take on his once-close ally Hoyer or someone else wouldn’t inhibit Crowley, they said.
Lawmakers eager for change see Crowley, who is the No.4 leader in the Democratic ranks and at least 20 years younger than the top three, as their best chance to break the decade-plus leadership logjam. But Crowley passed on a chance to shake up the status quo in 2016 after a group of members urged him to run against Pelosi. And there’s no guarantee this time will be any different.
“Is there an undercurrent of people that would like to see change or people grumbling about the fact that the people in leadership are old? Yes,” said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.). “But, if push comes to shove, what will be the compelling reason [to oust them] if we win?”
In the meantime, Crowley is embarking on a high-profile travel schedule with appearances in Cleveland, Seattle and Chicago in April, several yet-to-be-announced stops over the summer and a major fall fundraiser for House Democratic hopefuls.
Crowley’s itinerary is exactly the kind of circuit a party leader would work in the run-up to the November midterms. So far Crowley has raised $3 million for Democratic incumbents, candidates and the party’s House campaign arm this cycle, eclipsing the $2.3 million he brought in during the 2016 election.
Crowley declined to be interviewed for this story. But his spokeswoman, Lauren French, dismissed the idea that Crowley’s hectic travel and fundraising schedule is designed to help him become leader.
“Joe Crowley’s sole focus is putting Democrats in majority control of the House,” French said in a statement. “The only way issues like expanding health care, creating good-paying jobs, growing the economy, and enacting gun safety will get addressed is by electing Democrats.”
The stakes are enormous for everyone involved.
For Pelosi (D-Calif.), the denouement of her storied career hinges on this election. Either Democrats take back the House and she gets one more shot at the speakership, or the party falls short and she likely retires in defeat.
Hoyer (D-Md.) has waited behind for Pelosi for more than 15 years for his chance at the brass ring. At 78, and with a growing group of members clamoring for fresh leadership, this is likely his last chance to head his party.
Clyburn (D-S.C.) has defied predictions that he would retire after this year. He, too, doesn’t want to be pushed aside and has declared his intention to run for leadership again.
“I’m not planning on retirement and I’m not stepping aside for anybody,” said Clyburn, currently the highest ranking African-American in Congress.
All three have spent years building goodwill and loyalty within the caucus, roots that run deep and are unlikely to be quickly forgotten by many members. But with Pelosi and Hoyer at the top for more than 15 years, including almost 12 years in the minority, the calls for change have grown louder among rank-and-file members.
Crowley, one of Democrats’ most outgoing and well-liked members, is in a prime position to climb the ranks. As leader of the caucus, and vice chairman for four years before that, his job has included regular temperature checks with members, invaluable face time for someone looking to move up at some point.
He’s also the last member left of what was once a promising group of future House Democratic leaders: Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who has since retired, Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), now the attorney general of California, and Chris Van Hollen, Maryland’s junior senator.
After coming to Congress in 1999, Crowley aligned himself with Hoyer, the start of a years-long friendship and mentorship. But that decision — after Hoyer’s bitter battle for whip against Pelosi in 2001 — likely kept Crowley out of leadership for years, despite several attempts to join the ranks.
Larson defeated Crowley in a race for the vice chairmanship in 2006, a move many believed was heavily influenced by Pelosi. And Crowley was passed over fto become chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2010 after the job went to Israel, a Pelosi ally.
But since the 2016 election, the kinship between Hoyer and Crowley has frayed at the same time Crowley’s relationship with Pelosi has noticeably warmed. Crowley even introduced her as the “soon-to-be speaker again” at a recent women’s history event in the Bronx.
“I think there’s a sense of obsequiousness that Joe spent five or six years to get back in her good graces and if he had to jettison a long time commitment and friendship to Steny, so be it,” said one Democratic lawmaker who asked not to be named to speak candidly.
But other lawmakers said the move could work in Crowley’s favor come November. Aligning himself with Pelosi, they said, could curry favor among her core group of supporters in the caucus — a critical consideration if he wants to succeed her.
But Crowley’s entrance into leadership was never guaranteed, and his ascendance isn’t either.
Some members privately questioned whether Crowley has the policy chops necessary for leading the caucus. He is mostly known as an old-school New York Irish pol, but can claim a handful of key legislative achievements, including his role in a nuclear agreement with India, and House-passed legislation making it easier for low-income workers to claim certain tax credits.
Other lawmakers wondered whether it would be a problem having two white men from New York — Chuck Schumer is the Senate minority leader — as the congressional leaders of a party that prides itself on diversity.
But Crowley’s biggest obstacle may be time. There’s an ambitious group of Democratic members who have been in the caucus for six to 10 years and are getting tired of waiting their turn.
Some of those members have jokingly referred to Crowley as Prince Charles, saying if he waits too long to make a move, he risks being passed over completely. Several members from that group said they’re unlikely to make a push this year but want to rise in power come 2020.
“Nobody gives you power; you have to take it,” one younger lawmaker requesting anonymity said of Crowley. “And there’s no clear pathway to doing it, there will always be obstacles.”