“What Pelosi’s done is worse that what Lott did,” says a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “She said she was with us, then stabbed us in the back. I believe Lott when he says his mistake was of the mind not the heart. But I look at Pelosi’s error and I know it was made by both. I really believe that. She had a conscious choice and she made the one that hurt us. Aside from losing the majority, this is the saddest chapter in my time in the House.”
He’s referring to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi‘s decision — made public earlier this week at the height of the Trent Lott drama on the other side of Capitol Hill — to place longtime liberal ally Robert Matsui in charge of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In that role, Matsui will be the key Democrat in the House to recruit candidates, fundraise for the party and help shape the party’s message in the 2004 election cycle.
A member of the California delegation, Matsui never campaigned for the leadership post, was never mentioned as a candidate and has never served in leadership in a congressional career that many inside his party consider marginal.
Pelosi’s decision to elevate Matsui shocked Black Caucus members, who had been privately assured by Pelosi lieutenants that their candidate for the DCCC job, Bill Jefferson of Louisiana, was a serious contender for the job.
“There is no evidence that they ever seriously considered Bill,” says the Black Caucus member. “If our leadership doesn’t think we have juice to make their lives hard, then they are wrong.”
Jefferson, himself a relatively unknown Democrat, had in the past two election cycles shown a willingness and talent for fundraising and campaigning for his House colleagues. But early in his announced candidacy for the DCCC post, rivals pushed a story that Jefferson had failed to repay past campaign debts. Many suspect Pelosi operatives of making the leak in an attempt to diminish his chances, thus making her decision easier. But allies of Jefferson say he proved his mettle by playing a key role in the re-election of Sen. Mary Landrieu.
“He campaigned tirelessly for her in that final week,” says a House member who supported Jefferson. “When Landrieu needed the African-American vote more than ever, Jefferson was one of the men who pulled it out for her. He deserved better than he got.”
Pelosi’s decision to elevate Matsui surprised many in the party, and raised new concerns about her leadership. “She had an opportunity to show America our party was the real big tent, that we could see past color and recognize talent and hard work. She failed. Matsui is nothing but a liberal from California, a crony,” says the Jefferson supporter. “I hate to say it, but the Black Caucus is probably right. Given the times, the circumstances, Pelosi’s actions are probably worse than Lott’s.”
More troubling to more moderate House members, though, was Pelosi’s seeming uninterest in listening to her caucus’s concerns. “She just ignored everything we were telling her, and just rewarded a pal,” says the Jefferson backer. “When you are in the majority and on top, you can do that. We don’t have that luxury. Maybe she’s been listening too much to her old pal Willie Brown.”
Brown, who is black, is currently mayor of San Francisco and has long been a political ally of Pelosi. “That’s what makes this whole thing so stunningly embarrassing for her,” says a Pelosi staffer. “It’s not like she isn’t aware of how important it would be to elevate an African-American into the leadership. She’s seen examples of that importance throughout her career, and she still made this decision.”
According to Pelosi supporters, she considered Jefferson, but ruled him out early in the process. “He just wasn’t the right man for the job,” says a Democratic leadership staffer. “We’re in crisis mode. We needed someone in the slot who understood Pelosi, and who understood the party needs. I don’t think anyone thought Jefferson was right for the job. In this environment, we just couldn’t say it.”
But is Matsui any more qualified than Jefferson? “I don’t know,” says the leadership staffer. “But if the Black Caucus is complaining about Pelosi not picking a person of color, and that seems to be their only complaint, they’re being just as closed-minded as they claim Pelosi is. I mean, Matsui is a person of color.”
Leading up to Pelosi’s pick of Matsui, several candidates were rumored: Jefferson, Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey and Rep. Martin Frost. Frost, who lost out to Pelosi in the race for party leader, and who is far more moderate politically, had previously served as DCCC chair and is considered one of the House’s best fundraisers. Moderates and some Pelosi allies had pushed her to bring Frost on board to help heal the rift between the liberal and moderate wings of the party.
But Pelosi passed on Frost, and Markey removed himself from contention early in the process, which left Jefferson as the only announced candidate seeking the post. Despite her limited options, Pelosi took a pass on Jefferson as well to go with one of her California friends.
“Now she’s saying the party will find some other way to get us into leadership,” says the Black Caucus member. “But we know that’s just talk. You know, we didn’t get along well with [Republican Rep. J.C.] Watts. But I’ll say this for the Republicans: they gave him a leadership position without blinking. My party can’t say that, and it saddens me.”
Compounding Pelosi’s apparently impolitic behavior — and further angering the Black Caucus — was her decision to announce the Matsui selection at the height of the Trent Lott controversy. “Look, if Bush can make controversial or negative announcements during big-news periods that distract the American public, we can too,” says the Democratic leadership staffer. “I just don’t think any of us saw the irony in what we did.”