US & World

California members of Congress in heart of battle for number two job

The November election meant Nancy Pelosi lost her job as Speaker of the House. But when the San Francisco Democrat declined to step down from party leadership, a two-man battle for the number two position broke out on Capitol Hill. Both sides are wooing California’s Congressional Democrats.

The number two job in the minority party is that of “whip” – the person who keeps the party’s legislators in line when it’s time to vote. House majority leader Steny Hoyer was the whip the last time the Democrats were the minority party in the House. Late Monday, the Maryland Democrat announced that he wants to be the “whip” again.

Santa Barbara Congresswoman Lois Capps is a supporter of Hoyer. She says Hoyer "has that ability to bring together some very diverse constituencies that as you know we have in the Democratic Party."

Capps isn't the only California Democrat backing Hoyer. He also has support from a trio of powerful committee chairman, LA’s Henry Waxman, head of Energy and Commerce, Van Nuys Democrat Howard Berman, of Foreign Affairs, and Chula Vista’s Bob Filner, chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Marc Sandalow, a political scientist at the University of California’s DC Center, says it’s not surprising that Steny Hoyer actively pursued support from California’s Congressional delegation. "California has 33 Democrats in the House of Representatives," he says. "No other place comes close. No other state sends half that many Democrats. So if you were able to capture all the Democrats from California, you’d be in pretty strong shape." Sandalow says that’s how Nancy Pelosi beat back Hoyer in 2001 for the leadership position, persuading “virtually” every California Democrat to vote for her.

Hoyer’s won over some Californians in his bid to be the “whip” – but he doesn’t have them all. Oakland Democrat Barbara Lee prefers the current “whip” - South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn. She says, "when you talk about diversity, we have to be real. We have to be honest."

Lee heads the Congressional Black Caucus. She cites double-digit unemployment and disparities in healthcare in minority communities as reasons why it’s important to keep Clyburn, an African American, in the House leadership. "It would be very backwards," shes says, "if our Democratic caucus did not have the face of diversity in this country, the face of constituencies who have no voice, the face of communities of color." Lee says the Democratic base, many of whom are black and Latino, won’t tolerate a less than diverse caucus.

Clyburn is also endorsed by LA Congressman Xavier Becerra, currently the caucus vice chair and the only Latino in the Democratic leadership. Political scientist Marc Sandalow says Becerra is in a tenuous situation, sitting in the number five position of power. Sandalow says the minority party has one less leadership position. "So if suddenly Pelosi moves from being Speaker down to Democratic leader," says Sandalow, "everyone gets bumped down a notch. And, you know, somebody, like a game of musical chairs, doesn’t have a place to sit. So that’s what this fight is about."

Congresswoman Lois Capps insists there’s got to be a way to keep Becerra on board. "He’s just too important. We’re not going to drop him off. We have to figure a way that he maintains that important role within the leadership team."

The inter-party battle may look like the usual Democratic catfight. But the UCDC’s Marc Sandalow says there’s a lot at stake. Whoever wins the fight for whip will be the heir apparent to Nancy Pelosi and could well end up being the next Speaker of the House – should the Democrats someday retake the majority.