Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) accused Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) of playing the race card after the freshman lawmaker complained that Speaker Nancy Pelosi had again singled out young, progressive lawmakers of color for strong public criticism.
Saying he was personally offended at the suggestion, the long-tenured member of the Congressional Black Caucus said Thursday that Ocasio-Cortez and three fellow progressive freshmen women who call themselves “the Squad” were lashing out because “they didn’t get their way” as the tensions between the old guard of Democratic leadership and the young, assertive lawmakers with outsized social network presences exploded into public view.
Members of the House Democratic caucus were divided on Thursday, at odds over the Pelosi-AOC drama and who was at fault: the speaker, for training criticism on this vocal group of women; or that group’s most visible member, for suggesting that the party’s leader—who is highly esteemed among a diverse group of lawmakers on the Hill–was venturing into racially dicey territory.
Since January, Pelosi has frequently dismissed tactics from the Squad—consisting of Ocasio Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI)—as they’ve publicly pressed for more progressive policies on a range of issues. In June, for example, their goal of a border-funding bill with much-desired provisions by the left was quashed when the House ultimately advanced a bipartisan-backed bill, leaving them fuming.
“All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi told The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd in a recent interview. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” And in a closed-door meeting Wednesday, after Ocasio Cortez’ chief of staff tweeted a comparison between moderate Democrats and Jim Crow-era segregationists, Pelosi urged members to back off on going after each other.
Later that day, Ocasio Cortez fired back, telling the Washington Post that at first, she thought Pelosi was keeping progressives at arm’s length to defend moderates. But she said it “got to a point where it was just outright disrespectful… the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.”
Ocasio-Cortez later clarified she “absolutely” did not believe Pelosi was being racist. And the speaker said Thursday, “We respect the value of every member of our caucus… Diversity is our strength, unity is our power.” But some damage had already been done.
“I agree with the speaker: four people, four votes,” Clay said Thursday. “Unbelievable.”
As Clay—who has been targeted for a primary challenge by Justice Democrats, the group that propelled Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign—went off on the group, his colleagues rallied to the speaker’s defense.
“I don’t think that she’s singling out women of color,” said Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, a group where goodwill toward the speaker runs deep. “I don’t know what Alexandria meant, but I am going to ask her.”
Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA), a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, said every member had a right to free speech. “I’ll speak for myself and say that, Ms. Pelosi, to me, is one of the finest leaders I’ve met and I’ve got to work with.”
But for Democrats like Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Ocasio-Cortez’s comments resonated. “I don’t think the speaker is used to having a group of members who has bigger Twitter followings than her," she told Politico.
And some were left with raw feelings over the episode. “I thought it was strange for Speaker Pelosi to go after them that way,” said a House Democrat who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “I thought it was unnecessary. I don’t know what her motivation was, or whether there was any kind of racial or ethnic element to it, I don’t know. But I did think that it was heavy-handed.”
Sensing a need for communication, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters that he was working to secure a meeting between members of his group and party leadership, including Pelosi, to talk about “a whole bunch of things.”
But there was a palpable sense of fatigue on Capitol Hill over the latest explosion of enmity in Democrats’ fractious majority. Pressed to respond to some of the more controversial details of the drama—like the tweet of Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff—some, like Correa, simply threw up their hands.
Asked about the issue as she exited the House floor on Thursday, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA)—a lawmaker usually unafraid to speak her mind—just shook her head.
“I don’t pay any attention to it,” she said.