Race becomes new flashpoint with Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
WASHINGTON — The debate between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other House Democrats over migrant children in detention at the border was wrenching enough. Then it became about race.
First, the freshman's chief of staff compared more centrist Democrats to 1940s segregationists. Then Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., accused Speaker Nancy Pelosi of "singling out" her and fellow newcomers, all women of color.
By Thursday, the rhetoric escalated, overshadowing the agenda and pushing House Democrats way off message with the most divisive upheaval since they took control of the chamber this year. Longtime lawmakers were stunned.
"How dare they try to play the race card at this point," said Rep. William Lacy Clay, an African-American Democrat from Missouri who faces a primary challenge backed by allies of Ocasio-Cortez. He called those making the claims "ignorant" of racial history. "It shows the weakness of their argument. It's damaging to this party and the internal workings of the Democratic party."
Rep. John Lewis, the Civil Rights icon, shared his view.
Lewis said it was "a little too far" for the staff member to compare lawmakers to segregationists.
"We all must work together, pull together for the country's good," the Georgia Democrat said in an interview. "The great majority of the caucus membership tends to work together and get along. We need to go forward, not backward."
The problems have been developing for weeks, mounting as Congress struggled to pass a border funding package, but now may force a reckoning among Democrats that spills beyond Capitol Hill and into the 2020 campaigns.
Late last month, tensions grew between liberals, including Ocasio-Cortez and the "squad" of three other freshmen, and centrists from the Problem Solvers, Blue Dog and New Democratic caucuses over protections for migrant children and families in detention. With time ticking before funding ran out — and lawmakers set to leave town for the July 4th holiday — centrists revolted, forcing Pelosi to drop liberal demands and approve a more modest Senate version of the bill.
And then the fallout began.
"Didn't realize this needed to be said, but: you can be someone who does not personally harbor ill will towards a race, but through your actions still enable a racist system. And a lot of New Democrats and Blue Dogs did that today," tweeted Saikat Chakrabarti, the chief of staff for Ocasio-Cortez. It was an extraordinary attack by a staff member on elected officials.
"This is in reference to my comparing Blue Dogs and New Democrats to 1940s Southern Democrats," he wrote in another. "Southern Democrats enabled a racist system too. I have no idea how personally racist they all were. And we're seeing the same dynamic play out now."
That weekend, in trying to tamp down the divisions, Pelosi dismissed the influence Ocasio-Cortez and the squad — Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. — in a Sunday newspaper column. But it seems to have only enhanced their stature.
Allies of the foursome swiftly came to their defense, suggesting Pelosi was marginalizing the women of color who are the new face of the party. Chakrabarti tweeted his own critique of Pelosi.
Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post on Wednesday that "the persistent singling out ... it got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful ... the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color."
In a fundraising email Thursday, Justice Democrats, the progressive group that recruited Ocasio-Cortez to run for office, criticized Pelosi for "singling out four new leaders who are progressive women of color." The group is backing a handful of primary challengers to congressional Democrats, aiming for 25.