Rep. Jamie Raskin of Takoma Park on Thursday afternoon won his bid for a leadership position in the newly elected Democratic majority that will take control of the U.S. House of Representatives in early January.
Raskin, seeking a post with the title of caucus leadership representative, defeated Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell by a vote of 65-57 at the end of two days of meetings of the House Democratic Caucus. The position was created two years ago to give junior members of the Democratic Caucus a greater voice in the party leadership.
House Democrats who have served five terms or less since first elected were eligible to choose between Raskin—first elected in 2016 to represent Maryland’s Montgomery County-based 8th District—and Sewell, who arrived in Congress following the 2010 election.
“My goal is to make certain that the issues we campaigned on in 2018 dominate the Democratic agenda in the new Congress, and that the great new members we have elected in the junior classes become part of the face and voice and leadership of the new Congress,” Raskin said in a statement immediately following the vote.
During his campaign for the leadership post in the wake of the Nov. 6 general election in which the Democrats recaptured the House majority, Raskin pledged to hold monthly meetings for the junior members of the Democratic Caucus. “[This] has not been done before,” he noted in an interview last week. “I would like to create kind of a junior caucus—where we could surface the best ideas, and I could bring them to the leadership meetings.”
For Raskin, the victory is another step up the House leadership ladder; as a freshman, he was elected to the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which assigns legislators to committees and advises the leadership on policy.
While he is limited to one two-year term in his new post, it could help open up future opportunities to serve in the House leadership—following in the footsteps of his 8th District predecessor, now-Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Kensington, who held several House leadership positions before his election to the Senate in 2016.
To some extent, Thursday’s contest between Raskin and Sewell—who both graduated from Harvard Law School, five years apart—reflected current center-left tensions within the Democratic Party.
For the past two years, Raskin has been vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, while Sewell has held a similar position in the House New Democrat Coalition, which represents the more moderate wing of the party. Sewell is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose members comprise more than 20 percent of the 235 Democrats who will be seated in the House majority when the 116th Congress convenes Jan. 3.
Raskin was counting on the support of several newly elected House members from surrounding mid-Atlantic states such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The Democracy Summer Project, organized by Raskin two years ago, sent student interns to work for several Democratic challengers who upset Republican incumbents in House districts in those states.
One selling point that Raskin utilized in his bid for caucus leadership representative was his status as a member of Congress from a district whose southern border is barely 6 miles from Capitol Hill. He noted that he is often asked by colleagues to fill in for them at events around the Washington, D.C., area that they are unable to attend because of a need to be back in their home districts.
“By virtue of being a local member, I will be available on a 24/7 basis to serve the needs of the junior members,” Raskin said in last week’s interview. “I don’t have to be on airplanes on Mondays and Fridays like the vast majority of the members of Congress do. By virtue of being close, I can get stuff done for people who are farther away.”
The race between Raskin and Sewell, along with a host of other leadership positions voted on during the two days of House Democratic Caucus meetings this week, was largely overshadowed by the infighting over who should be the next House speaker.
Current House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California was nominated for the position Wednesday with 203 votes, with both Raskin and Sewell among her publicly declared supporters. But 32 Democrats voted against Pelosi in the caucus meetings, and she will have to convert about half of the dissidents to garner the majority vote of the 435-member House that she needs to be elected speaker when Congress convenes in January.
Raskin said the debate over whether Pelosi should return to the speaker’s post, which she held from 2007 to 2011 while the Democrats were previously in the majority, had in large part motivated his run for the caucus leadership representative post.
“I’ve been an early and strong supporter of Pelosi,” he said last week. “But then, I also hear from lots of people who say that it is time for a new generation of leadership and we need new voices and new vision in the Democratic leadership in Congress. And I want to be responsive to that, too … . I want to be in a position where I can work with this great new generation of people who have come in, and make sure that their voices are being heard.”
Asked whether he shares the concerns of some intraparty critics of Pelosi that she could be a political liability in some regions of the country that Democrats need to recapture the White House in 2020, Raskin said: “Nancy Pelosi is a very savvy and insightful political leader. She understands precisely where the GOP has been able to tarnish her brand in politics. She knows where she’s popular, and she knows where she has been made unpopular. That’s in the nature of politics; it’s not a game for the faint of heart.”
He added: “If Nancy wins [the speaker’s post in January], and I fully expect her to, she will have to figure out a very deliberate political strategy about how to approach the 2020 election.”
Besides his newly acquired leadership post, the Democrats’ majority caucus will translate into additional clout for Raskin on other fronts. He is all but guaranteed to wield a gavel on a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where he now serves. Alternatively, he could possibly end up chairing a subcommittee on the Judiciary Committee, another one of his current assignments, contingent on moves by members with greater seniority.
Off the Hill, however, he will relinquish his long-time role as Professor Raskin—at least for a while.
Since his initial election to the House in 2016, Raskin has been on an unpaid leave of absence as a constitutional law professor at American University in the District—where he taught since 1990. But, to continue in Congress, he has now been compelled to give up his teaching post.
“It’s hard for me to say it, but I have accepted an early retirement,” Raskin, who turns 56 next month, said with a hint of emotion in his voice. He will have the title of professor emeritus, while adding, “You can take me out of academia for a while, but you can’t take academia out of me.”
Raskin said he hopes eventually to return to teaching on an adjunct basis. “I’ve got a whole new idea of how to reorganize the course in constitutional law,” he said. “Everything in constitutional law is from the standpoint of the courts and the judges. And over the past couple of years, I’ve been thinking what it would be like to turn the constitutional law class on its head—and start from Congress and the decisions that Congress makes.”
But he said that a return to the classroom on a part-time basis is at least a couple of years off.
“I’ve said that I don’t think it would be responsible for me to be teaching—even though it’s acceptable within the rules of Congress—as long as Donald Trump is president,” declared the often acerbic Trump critic. “Once we get through the continuing crisis of the republic we’re living through now, then I could contemplate it.”