BALTIMORE — For years, House Democrats have battled the perception that they don’t have a bench of talent that can step up when their current crop of leaders retires.
But during a three-day conference retreat here last week, Democrats showcased a slew of new faces in high-profile speaking roles — many at the urging of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, both of California.
The group of up-and-comers included Reps. Ruben Gallego, a freshman from Arizona, and Mark Pocan, a sophomore from Wisconsin, who both led panels during the policy retreat, as well as Ami Bera of California and Robin Kelly of Illinois.
Giving these younger or more newly elected members a platform to address their senior colleagues during the retreat was not insignificant. There has been lingering tension within the caucus about the leadership succession, particularly given that freshmen, sophomore and even junior members see no path for advancement. But with the top three spots in the caucus dominated by popular lawmakers who have no plans to leave, Democratic leaders are trying to find new ways to spotlight ambitious members who might otherwise be heading toward the exits.
There are “definitely a lot” of efforts underway to “let members do more things,” Pocan said. “Given a system that is largely based on seniority, you can clearly see” the potential for clashes. “While there are not the same paths with subcommittees and rankings, because that is largely based on seniority, we’re finding other ways to be active.”
Here’s a rundown of some of the younger Democrats waiting in the wings who spoke at the retreat:
Rep. Ruben Gallego Arizona’s 7th Congressional District — Elected 2014
A former assistant minority leader in the Arizona House of Representatives, Gallego has advanced quickly in the 12 months since he was sworn in to Congress. The Harvard grad serves as a senior whip for the Democratic Caucus, is the whip for the influential Congressional Hispanic Caucus and is a vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. He’s also one of the few Iraq War veterans among the Democratic ranks and has emerged as a leader on campaign finance reform. In a caucus that’s growing more diverse and more progressive, Gallego’s alliances to the CHC and progressive wing could help him move up.
Rep. Mark Pocan Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District — Elected 2012
This former Wisconsin state politician has carved out a niche as a libertarian-minded lawmaker who can work with some of the most conservative Republicans in the House on privacy issues. He’s also an outspoken advocate for LGBT issues and deeply progressive — always a plus within the House Democratic Caucus. The sophomore class is highly competitive, however, so Pocan, like every congressman elected in 2012, will face fierce competition to move up. Pocan’s already gotten a taste of leadership as a senior whip, a job for which Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) tapped him in 2015.
Rep. Tony Cárdenas California’s 29th Congressional District — Elected 2012
Just three years into his congressional career, Cárdenas already has a leadership role among Hispanics. He’s the chairman of the BOLD PAC, which supports Hispanic candidates and other Democratic lawmakers in reelection bids — meaning that if the California lawmaker wants to move up, he’ll have plenty of chits to cash in. He serves on the Committee on Energy and Commerce — an influential panel.
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District — Elected 2012
This former lobbyist knows how Washington works — and was one of the few newly elected women to be given a prime speaking spot at the House Democratic retreat when she moderated a panel on opportunity for Americans. Kuster has been an outspoken critic of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the massive Pacific Rim trade deal that’s one of President Barack Obama’s top policy achievements. That could prove awkward for Kuster, as she was a delegate for Obama in 2008, but it puts her squarely in line with a caucus that is adamantly opposed to the deal.
Rep. Ami Bera California’s 7th Congressional District — Elected 2012
Bera has gotten a lot of blowback in California over his controversial support of Trade Promotion Authority, but he’s a popular, well-respected moderate in D.C. A member of the pro-business New Democrat Coalition, Bera is the only Indian-American serving in Congress. He’s on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
Rep. Robin Kelly Illinois’ 2nd Congressional District — Elected 2012
Kelly is a former member of the Illinois House of Representatives who knocked out a 10-year incumbent during her first run for local office. She got a prize speaking gig at the House Democratic retreat when she introduced Obama — a close friend. Kelly is well-liked among the conference and is one of the few younger African-American members to be given a spotlight at the retreat. If she were to run for future office within the House, the Congressional Black Caucus could be a major boon, as the CBC often votes en bloc.
Rep. Suzan DelBene Washington’s 1st Congressional District — Elected 2012
DelBene has run two tight races against Republicans — finally coming out on top in 2012, when she beat GOP candidate John Koster. That in-the-trenches campaign experience likely came in handy when she came out in support of the controversial Trade Promotion Authority earlier this year. That bill was staunchly opposed by many unions that first endorsed her congressional bid. DelBene is a member of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, which has more than 50 members.