House Democratic leadership is on the attack, and party leaders are going after some of their own: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and her staff.
Late Friday night, the official Twitter account for House Democrats, managed by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) — fired off an incendiary tweet about Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, accusing him of “singling out out a Native American woman of color,” Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS).
Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color?
Her name is Congresswoman Davids, not Sharice.
She is a phenomenal new member who flipped a red seat blue.
Keep Her Name Out Of Your Mouth. pic.twitter.com/k4sV5hsbQl
— House Democrats (@HouseDemocrats) July 13, 2019
A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declined to comment on the speaker’s view of the tweet from the official House Democrats’ account. House Democratic Caucus spokesman Michael Hardaway, however, confirmed to Vox the tweet was sent intentionally, but didn’t explain the rationale behind it.
The tweet was sent in response to something Chakrabarti had tweeted two weeks prior about Democrats accepting the Senate’s $4.59 billion emergency border funding bill in late June, a bill progressives argued did not go far enough to address conditions at the detention centers at the border.
At the time, Chakrabarti referred to moderate Democrats who advocated for the Senate plan the “New Southern Democrats,” and said they were “hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.” (Southern Democrats in the 1940s were on the whole conservative, and were opponents of civil rights efforts, including early attempts at desegregation.) Chakrabarti eventually deleted the original tweet, clarifying he didn’t see those members as racist, but as enablers of a racist system.
Tensions between House Democratic leadership and progressive lawmakers have been escalating in recent weeks, as progressives see leadership as dismissive of their demands and influence in the party. Chakrabarti sits at an interesting intersection of this dynamic. He works for Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic Socialist member whose viral internet presence has helped her platform to dominate conversation at the national level in a manner that has struck the ire of entrenched House members. And he founded Justice Democrats, a progressive group working to unseat ideologically moderate Democrats, some of which are veteran black lawmakers who have worked their way into the inner circle of House leadership.
Until now, Pelosi has publicly dismissed progressives’ influence and privately told the House majority to maintain a spirit of unity. But the internal strife within her party keeps boiling over into the public.
House Democrats are angry about a two week old tweet from AOC’s staffer
The tweet from House Democrats comes days after Pelosi firmly told House Democratic lawmakers and their staff to keep their internal gripes off Twitter.
“You got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it. But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just okay,” Pelosi told lawmakers in a private meeting Tuesday, according to multiple sources in the room.
Pelosi’s remarks were interpreted as a direct message to progressive lawmakers and their teams. Lawmakers like Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Mark Pocan (D-WI) were explicit about their frustrations with moderate Democrats after the border funding vote. Pocan called the bipartisan group of moderate Republicans and Democrats — dubbed the “Problem Solvers Caucus” — the “Child Abuse Caucus.” Chakrabarti commented as well, with his tweet comparing current moderate Democrats to the Southern Democrats who enabled segregationist policies in the 1940s.
Despite Pelosi’s admonition, the official House Democrats account tweeted a direct attack on one of its members’ staff. Even though his boss was one of the subjects of the speaker’s warning, Chakrabarti himself responded to the House Democrats’ tweet.
“Everything I tweeted two weeks ago was to call out the terrible border funding bill that 90+ Dems opposed,” he said. “It gave Trump a blank check to continue caging people in horrendous conditions. Our Democracy is literally falling apart. I’m not interested in substance-less Twitter spats.”
This tweet was in response to someone else’s tweet where they specifically brought up Rep. Davids. Why did you leave that out?
I’ve known Rep. Davids for a long time, consider her a friend, and encouraged her to run for Congress back in the fall of 2016. I’m glad she did. https://t.co/3PNhGeAa3V
— Saikat Chakrabarti (@saikatc) July 13, 2019
Pelosi has yet to respond to the escalation.
“This is Hakeem [Jeffries]’s account so he can do whatever he wants. This was a brutal attack on a member here,” a senior Democratic aide told Vox. “This is the caucus’s Twitter account, this isn’t the voice of House Democrats generally, come on.”
The aide clarified the fact Chakrabarti was a staff member rather than a Congressperson could help explain why he was singled out.
“The segregationist tweet is what members are roiled about,” the aide said. “Staff are meant to be seen and not heard. That is unprecedented.”
There’s some important history here
The tweet from Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff comparing moderate Democrats to past segregationists in Congress inflamed some moderate, black Democrats in the House. But there’s been longer-simmering tension between the two camps that has to do with Justice Democrats attempting to primary a Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) member in 2018.
Ocasio-Cortez swept into Congress last year by ousting former House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-NY), a powerful Queens party boss who was widely seen as being next in line for speaker of the House in the coming years.
The group that backed her, Justice Democrats, hasn’t shied away from campaigning to oust sitting moderate Democrats. The group has been clear it wants more progressives in Congress to focus on liberal issues — even if that means getting rid of the Democrats that are already there.
During the 2018 midterms, the Justice Democrats-backed Cori Bush, a black woman challenging longtime Rep. Lacy Clay of Missouri, himself a member of the CBC. Bush is planning to run against Clay again, and Justice Democrats have also backed a primary challenger against Congressional Hispanic Caucus member Henry Cuellar (D-TX).
“It just seems strange that the social Democrats seem to be targeting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, individuals who have stood and fought to make sure that African Americans are included and part of this process,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY), a senior CBC member, himself a Queens party boss, told The Hill’s Scott Wong.
Meeks has also suggested his fellow moderates challenge progressive members of his chamber. “Primaries go two ways,” Meeks told the New York Daily News. “If someone picks a fight with somebody else, you fight back.”
Beyond the ongoing primary fight, there’s something else going on in the continuing war between Ocasio-Cortez’s camp and the rest of the House Democratic Caucus — a vast disagreement on the underlying seniority structure on which Pelosi’s caucus runs. Seniority is extremely important in the House Democratic Caucus, especially among the powerful CBC, whose members are close to Pelosi.
From the beginning of Ocasio-Cortez’s entrance into Congress, she made it clear she didn’t want to play by the old rules. Beyond her tendency to tweet brash things to a following of millions, the new freshman raised eyebrows with an opening bid to get on the powerful House Ways and Means committee, Politico reported back in January. That small action alone aggravated many longtime members.
“It totally pissed off everyone,” a senior House Democratic lawmaker told Politico at the time. “You don’t get picked for committees by who your grass-roots [supporters] are.”
But the young, new progressive members are tired of House leadership’s structure, both in Congress and the larger political system. Notably, however, these progressive’s supported Pelosi’s speakership bid in January, whereas many of the moderate Democrats did not.
“I don’t want to bring a chair to an old table,” freshman and Ocasio-Cortez ally Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) said Saturday at the annual Netroots Nation progressive conference in Philadelphia. “This is the time to shake the table, this is the time to redefine the table.”
This is about a progressive movement trying to gain power
On Saturday, at the annual progressive Netroots Nation conference, House leadership’s conduct was centerstage at an event with progressive lawmakers Reps. Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Deb Haaland.
“Every single person in Congress has a role — our role is to take our votes, leadership’s role is to wrangle votes,” Omar said. “When everybody understands what their role is, then everybody succeeds. But there is a constant struggle oftentimes with people who have power about sharing that power.”
The viciousness of the fight between the progressive “squad” (a group of progressive freshmen that includes Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, and Pressley) and the rest of the House Democratic caucus may be amplified the closer to the 2020 elections we get, because Democrats are very focused on protecting their House majority, especially moderate members.
Some within the Democratic caucus are nervous about Ocasio-Cortez’s star power and megaphone of 4.7 million Twitter followers, as well as the large following of the rest of the squad. The fact those followings are used to amplify progressive ideas like the Green New Deal, Medicare-for-all, and Abolish ICE is making moderate Democrats — many of whom are the reason Democrats hold the majority in the House right now — incredibly nervous.
The reality is, however, Ocasio-Cortez is not just a Congresswoman, but a social media star with 4.7 million followers, and at times, she uses that huge platform to call out fellow House Democrats on disagreements that normally would be hashed out behind closed doors, as they have been for many years. As House Democrats adjust to this new reality, and as Ocasio-Cortez and other freshmen Democrats with large online followings work to convert social media power into political capital, disputes such as the one between Jeffries and Chakrabarti are likely to continue to spill into the public sphere.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled House Democratic Caucus spokesman Michael Hardaway’s name.