The Raucous Caucus

The Raucous Caucus

A wave of progressive women candidates could help steer the next Congress in new directions on war and peace, fair trade and civil liberties.


When the nation’s newest Congresswoman arrived in Maine in August to campaign for a fellow Democrat seeking an open House seat, she tossed aside the cautious talking points peddled by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Maryland’s Donna Edwards, who won a House seat in a June special election, was talking about how she and candidate Chellie Pingree would shake up Washington come January. Topic A: renewing the Constitution. Recalling her third House vote, on a rewrite of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act–which majority leader Steny Hoyer wanted Democrats to back despite its failure to address privacy concerns adequately–Edwards told Pingree backers in Cape Elizabeth, “I had to walk up to him on the floor of the United States Congress, and I had to tell him, ‘Steny, I will not vote for that FISA bill. And I won’t do it because I think that there is a way to protect the security of the United States, and there is a way to gather intelligence, that doesn’t intrude on…the rights of the American public. And we haven’t done that with FISA.’ And I told him that and then I went right over and cast my vote against that.”

To the cheers of Maine Democrats who, like their compatriots across the country, recognize that Washington will change only if the party’s Congressional caucus develops an edgier, more aggressively progressive stance, Edwards continued, “I know that Chellie Pingree is gonna be that kind of stand-up, I’ve-got-a-little-backbone Democrat.” That’s not just rhetoric; before they became candidates, Edwards and Pingree worked together as Washington outsiders promoting campaign finance, election and media reforms that put them decidedly at odds with the Bush administration and some of their fellow Democrats.

Edwards and Pingree are members of a loose sorority of Democratic women inspired to run for Congress by a shared sense that their party should do more to end the occupation in Iraq, defend civil liberties and stand up for economic justice. These women look likely to prevail in a year when Democrats are set to expand their House majority dramatically–perhaps flipping as many as the thirty-one GOP seats the party won in 2006, which gave it narrow control of the chamber.

But many Democrats elected in 2006 were satisfied simply to stamp a D on the Capitol, and frustration with the tepidness of House challenges to Bush administration policies and with the stale, bipartisan status quo–which has given Congress worse approval ratings than the president–has drawn a remarkable field of experienced activists into House races. Some, like Edwards, former executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the progressive Arca Foundation, and Pingree, former president of Common Cause, are nationally known reformers; others, like Washington State’s Darcy Burner, are business leaders with long histories of community involvement; still others, like New Jersey’s Linda Stender and Nevada’s Dina Titus, developed their skills as state legislators.

What unites these progressive women, aside from their gender and their track records of getting things done, is a belief that a Democratic Congress must be about more than merely opposing Republicans. “I’m a big Democrat, right, but I also know that sometimes we don’t get it quite right,” explains Edwards. “We need people in Congress who are going to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire so that we do right by the American people–who aren’t going to just follow the party line, but who are going to make sure that the party line is the right line to follow.”

Burner and Pingree illustrated what that might mean earlier this year, when they collaborated with Edwards to produce their Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq, a far more detailed strategy than that of House Democratic leaders. “The people inside the Beltway don’t seem to get how big an issue this is,” explained Burner, a former Microsoft executive who, after almost beating a popular Republican incumbent in 2006, kept on campaigning. Eventually, sixty Democratic House and Senate candidates endorsed the Responsible Plan, including military veteran Eric Massa, another narrow loser from the 2006 election who appears poised to unseat a GOP incumbent in New York State this year. Indeed, while many of the candidates likely to make up what Edwards calls the “raucous caucus” of next year’s newcomers are women, there are also men like Massa and another vet, Ashwin Madia, who is campaigning for an open seat in Minnesota. And as the economy has taken center stage, Burner, Pingree and other backers of the Responsible Plan have taken the lead in talking about the importance of shifting spending from failed foreign adventures to rebuilding America.

Barring unexpected twists on the campaign trail, many of these determined Democrats are going to win. Senior Republicans, frustrated by the decline in their party’s fortunes, are quitting the House, creating more open-seat contests than usual. One is in Ohio, where Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy, an economic populist who emphasizes creating green jobs, is likely to replace exiting Republican Deborah Pryce. Several GOP incumbents who stayed on–like Minnesota’s bombastic McCarthyite Michele Bachmann, who suddenly faces a serious challenge from Democrat El Tinklenberg, a minister who calls the election “a referendum on Bachmann” and the extreme right–are suffering from their association with an administration rendered even more unpopular by the financial meltdown and with the angry campaign of John McCain. Three weeks before election day, DCCC chair Chris Van Hollen expanded the number of seats targeted by the committee’s Red to Blue program. It’s now taking aim at sixty seats–almost a third of the GOP caucus.

Democrats are unlikely to win all of them, and a handful of the caucus’s more cautiously conservative 2006 winners are vulnerable after failing to make an impression–or stumbling personally–in districts that lean Republican. But the Democrats have a very good chance of picking up seats in regions where Obama’s candidacy is expected to boost turnout–Burner’s in the Seattle area, the California coast district where Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook is running against senior Republican Dana Rohrabacher and the Albuquerque district where Democrat Martin Heinrich is likely to replace exiting Republican Heather Wilson. In addition to being more Democratic, the next House will likely be more progressive–particularly on issues of war and peace, fair trade and civil liberties. Many of the new progressives will be experienced women arriving with a determination to shake off the caution of the last Democratic Congress and, in Pingree’s words, “reclaim our country now–by ending the war in Iraq, by strengthening the middle class that has been so weakened under the Bush administration and by restoring accountability to government.”

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