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The Democratic Insurgents Who Want to Topple Nancy Pelosi

What do Tim Ryan and Seth Moulton really want?

Seth Moulton, Nancy Pelosi, Tim Ryan

Seth Moulton, Nancy Pelosi, Tim Ryan

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There’s an insurrection brewing in the House of Pelosi.

An intractable group on the Democratic Party’s center flank is working to deny Nancy Pelosi the speaker’s gavel. The leaders of the block-Pelosi effort — which roughly mirrors the right-wing Freedom Caucus’ play to oust Republican Speaker John Boehner in 2015 — include Reps. Seth Moulton (D-MA), a 40-year-old former Marine officer, and Tim Ryan (D-OH) a 45-year-old former college quarterback who ran against Pelosi for the minority leader post in 2016 and lost badly, 134–63.

Their gambit is complex; here’s a brief rundown of how it works.

Becoming Speaker requires two votes. In the first, Democrats select a nominee with a simple majority of House Democrats — Pelosi has that vote locked up. The Speakership is then contested in a second vote on the House floor, and finalized by securing a majority of all representatives — typically 218 votes.

This week, Moulton, Ryan and several colleagues have been circulating a letter among allies, collecting signatures in an effort to build a bloc of Pelosi rejectionists. The signers are pledging to vote against Pelosi in the second round on the House floor. The new Democratic House majority is expected to max out at about 234 votes, meaning that if 17 or so Democrats commit not to vote for Pelosi on the House floor, she could be blocked from returning to the Speaker post she held from 2007 to 2011 — when she marshaled Democrats to safeguard social security from privatization, stave off collapse of the global economy and pass the Affordable Care Act.

Speaking with Rolling Stone this week, Ryan says the response within the Democratic ranks to the anti-Pelosi letter has been “really positive.” The Democrats who have publicly come out against Pelosi, he said, reflect a deeper desire for a leadership and generational change. “There’s a lot of concern moving forward with the current leadership,” he says. “You got all these new members who have made all these public commitments” during the election to not vote for Pelosi. “You got 12, 13, 14, 15 of us current members who are like, ‘This ain’t going to fly.’

“She’s in trouble,” Ryan says. “The question is going to be: Do we solve this beforehand, in the family, in the caucus, or does this spill out in the House floor?”

What’s remarkable about the block-Pelosi play is that there is no Candidate B — no other Democrat has yet stepped forward to publicly challenge Pelosi for the post. According to a Democratic representative close to the effort, the idea behind the letter announcing an anti-Pelosi bloc is to demonstrate that she cannot win, and force Pelosi to withdraw rather than suffer an “embarrassing” defeat on the House floor. With Pelosi clearing the field, the theory goes, new candidates would emerge and the Democratic caucus would shake up its staid leadership ranks.

Moulton is not trying to become Speaker himself: “I’ve been very clear I’m not running,” he told Rolling Stone in June. The anti-Pelosi bloc is trying to recruit another woman to compete for the post. “There’s plenty of really competent females that we can replace her with,” Ryan told the New York Times. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, is reportedly mulling a run against Pelosi. “Congress needs a new leader. Period,” Moulton tweeted, backing 66-year-old Fudge: “I have full faith in her ability to lead our new Congress to its fullest potential.”

The insurgency has been brewing, quietly, for months. When Rolling Stone asked Pelosi about Moulton and Ryan in May, she dismissed them as “inconsequential,” adding: “I have great support in my caucus. I’m not worried about that. And I’m certainly not worried about them.” In recent days Pelosi, has expressed “total confidence” she will regain the Speaker’s gavel.

Rolling Stone has been talking with both Moulton and Ryan on and off for the past year-and-a-half, seeking to understand their motives. What do these men want?

Ryan, who hails from post-industrial Youngstown, was blunt in his assessment of the Democratic Party this week: “We need a brand change.” He tells Rolling Stone that he wants a less coastal Democratic Party, pointing out the lack of House leaders from the middle of the country. “It’s a pretty large swath of the country to completely ignore,” he says. “How in God’s name do we expect to win the House, have a significant majority, hold it, have a party brand that’s connecting to people, and have nobody in the Midwest at all?”

In past interviews, Ryan has lamented his party’s turn toward political correctness. “We can’t have these purity tests,” he said, before listing a few key characteristics all Democrats should have. “You can’t be racist. You can’t be sexist. You can’t be homophobic — you’ve got to check those boxes — and then be economically progressive,” he said. “Other than that, we’ve got to be a big-tent party.” Ryan said he wants Democrats to come up with an umbrella economic agenda that can unify the party’s diverse coalition: “A robust economic message that all of those different groups could hear and go, ‘Yeah, you know, That’s me. I’m in on that.’”

Mouton has also voiced a centrist view of Democratic ideals. “It means someone who cares about the middle class, who truly believes that we are a nation of equal opportunity. That does not mean it’s a nation of equal results,” he told Rolling Stone. “We have a free-market system that we love and embrace.” Moulton seemed most concerned about America’s global leadership: “We need to talk about how to have a strong and smart national security strategy while Trump is being reckless across the globe. And not just complain about Trump, but talk about what Democrats will do.”

Moulton, in particular, railed against Pelosi’s leadership. “It’s not about ideology, it’s much bigger than that,” Moulton said. “It’s about having a vision for the future. We’ve become a party that’s just anti-Trump and doesn’t have any vision itself.”

Moulton was unsparing in his assessment of how Pelosi has managed the caucus — and in particular about what he sees as a lack of opportunity for younger members to advance in a Democratic House dominated by 70- and 80- somethings. “We need to have leadership that has the confidence to build our party’s bench, not discourage newer or younger or members from running or contributing… that’s what our party does right now.” If a private company, Moulton said, blocked the rise of young talent and “didn’t have any vision for how to take that company forward, you would never keep the same leadership.”

What’s most striking looking back on this pre-election conversation with Moulton, however, is that the congressman was fundamentally wrong about the election. Moulton mocked Pelosi for leaning on the playbook from 2006, when Democrats last took the House: “I mean we barely had iPhones in 2006,” he said. He believed Democrats were no more than 55 percent likely to take the House, and that the election would turn on a handful of races, leaving Democrats with a bare-bones majority — a victory reflective of moribund leadership that had left the Democrats, as he put it, “in the worst place that the party has been since 1920s.”

Instead, under Pelosi’s leadership, Democrats won a resounding victory in the House, gaining as many as 40 seats — stomping Republicans in traditional strongholds like Orange County, California, while picking up seats in formerly red corners of South Carolina, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. More broadly, Democrats picked up at least seven governorships, fought the Senate contest to a near draw and picked up hundreds of state legislative seats.

In Rolling Stone’s last conversation with Moulton, he did offer Pelosi a back-handed compliment: “I have great respect for everything Pelosi has accomplished in her long and storied career. She’ll go down in history as the first woman to be Speaker of the House. What an unbelievable achievement,” he said. “But for her to suggest that she’s the only person who can do this? I think that’s pretty arrogant.”

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