Frank DeFilippo: Nancy Pelosi Schools the Political World

Nancy Pelosi being sworn in to Congress in 1987 as her father, former Baltimore mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., looks on. Big Tommy famously said, "When you've got the votes, call the roll."

It’s an indisputable strictly back-of-the-brain rule of politics: You can’t beat somebody with nobody.

Anyone watching the opposition to Rep. Nancy Pelosi melt away is observing a tutorial on how Congress actually works. It’s not all bills and bull. And it can no longer technically be called pork, as it was in the days when pork was power. But it is still a variation on the dispensing of favors by someone who’s been there, done that, many times before.

One potential challenger dropped out on the promise of a subcommittee chairmanship, and another bad-mouth opponent aligned with Pelosi after an “agreement in principle” on legislation and an admission that there’s “no alternative” to the once-and-future House speaker.

The teetering dominoes in the House of Representatives are mainly a cohort of 16 outliers, now 15, some of whom want more youthful leadership and others who found Pelosi to be a useful campaign foil in red-lining districts. Among them are tyros who haven’t yet located the lavatories in the House office buildings but are trying to give the Democratic leadership directions.

Those of a certain age have seen this film-strip in Maryland before, and as sure as history is destined to repeat itself it’ll come around again.

Frank A. DeFilippo

In 1992, for example, a bookish and amiable young delegate named Nancy Kopp, from Montgomery County, now state treasurer, was encouraged to challenge R. Clayton Mitchell, an Eastern Shore Democrat, for the House speakership.

The rationale for this kamikaze mission was that Montgomery County was being denied its fair share of the state’s largesse and installing one of its own in the top leadership position would assure parity when the pixie dust was distributed.

Kopp’s initial vote count was encouraging. But the numbers soon began to fade. Kopp was banished to the corner with the dunce cap after Mitchell dispatched the challenge and easily retained his speakership.

On another occasion, in the year 2000, a group of senators approached Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) with the idea of naming a state building in Annapolis after former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D). Miller bagged the idea from the start.

In varying degrees of pique, from disappointed to genuinely angry, allies of Mandel decided as retribution a palace putsch. They convinced Sen. Thomas Bromwell (D), of Baltimore County, a Mandel water-carrier, to challenge Miller for the Senate presidency.

Lacking a serious vote-count or a solid bloc of support, Bromwell was shot down, mid-flight, and not heard from for a long, long time until he was allowed slow and awkward repatriation by Miller.

Reaching way back through the cobwebs, the House of Delegates election class of 1966 was a rambunctious gang hellbent on reform, kind of like the flamethrowers trying to eject Pelosi. Upon assuming office in 1967, a small group of Baltimore City legislators decided House Majority Leader W. Dale Hess (D-Harford) was an embarrassment and not up to the leadership task. They were privately egged on by Del. Thomas Hunter Lowe, the Judiciary Committee chairman from the Eastern Shore, who coveted the role himself, on how to dislodge Hess.

A representative group arranged a meeting with Mandel, who was then House speaker. When they presented their demand, Mandel, ever the tactician, said: “If you have 71 votes, you can do anything you want to. If you haven’t got the votes, this meeting is over.”

And so it goes with Pelosi. Those who would see her gone have yet to produce an acceptable alternative candidate and the opposition appears to be trickling off, one-by-one and two-by-two, as the Nov. 28 date of the Democratic Caucus vote approaches. Pelosi needs a majority of her caucus to take her election to the full House on Jan. 3, where she needs 218 votes. President Trump has promised Republican help.

Pelosi has bruised House colleagues before. She and Maryland homeboy Rep. Steny H. Hoyer have been long-time Democratic caucus rivals. In 2006, for example, Pelosi supported Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) for majority leader over Hoyer. Hoyer’s defeat of Murtha by a wide margin was viewed as a repudiation of Pelosi’s aggressive tactics and recognition of Hoyer’s tireless work to elect Democrats, according to reportage at the time.

Gender, age (Pelosi is 78) and Pelosi-fatigue have all played a cumulative role in fomenting the challenge to Pelosi’s 16 years as leader of the House Democrats, despite the hundreds of millions she’s raised and the strong recovery Democrats made across the board in the mid-terms, including recapturing the House with the most seats since the Watergate election in 1974.

Pelosi’s report card also carries with it a celebrity list of endorsements that include A-lister show business and Silicon Valley names from her adopted state of California, unions and the apotheosis of Democratic luminaries, President Obama. Obama owes Pelosi big-time for passage of the Affordable Care Act, his signature legislative achievement.

Initially, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), encouraged by a few House mates, indicated she’d considered running against Pelosi. But after the two met, Fudge withdrew. She was promised the chairmanship of a subcommittee on elections, currently an inactive, that could be crucial to blacks and other minorities in dealing with claims of voter suppression.

Rep. Brian Higgins, of New York, was among the noisiest of those exercising their tonsils in opposition to Pelosi for a reprisal as speaker. He signed the letter, along with 15 others, pledging to oppose her no matter what.

But attitudes change when there’s the commitment of help from the gavel to expand Medicare to allow those 50 and older to buy into the popular health care program along with the promise to launch an infrastructure makeover, two issues that make Higgins’ raging centrist heart go pitter-patter.

There are others, too, as the list of Pelosi opponents winnows. Each new notch illustrates Pelosi’s mastery of the levers of power just as the local squalls demonstrated the survival skills of Miller, Mitchell and Hess.

She is employing the toolkit of the speakership. And she is deploying her top deputies – Hoyer and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) – to crack some skulls and grab some elbows. And there’s a whip system of more than 40 to provide instant vote-counts.

Legislative bodies, here at home or abroad, all pretty much function the same, whether the United States Congress, the Maryland General Assembly, the German Bundestag or the British Parliament – it’s the votes that count, and not the mandate.

In fact, a while back, the cohort of reporters covering the Maryland General Assembly, passed down-time in the State House press room by compiling a mimicking handbook called “30 Ready Legislative Ledes, Good for any Parliamentary Body in the World.”

Oh, and one more point: It’s been announced, more or less, that Maya Rockeymoore-Cummings, wife of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Baltimore City), will challenge Kathleen Matthews for the chairmanship of the Maryland Democratic Party at its Dec. 1 election.

Rockeymoore-Cummings is a public policy consultant who withdrew from the governors’ race because of her husband’s lengthy illness.

How about a small wager (as betting on elections is illegal in Maryland) that Rockeymoore-Cummings might walk away with the promise of a position within the party and withdraw before the election reaches the ballot stage? It’s a lesson Matthews might have learned by watching Pelosi.

Or, as Pelosi’s father, the revered former Baltimore Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. used to say, and might counsel his daughter now, “When you’ve got the votes, call the roll.”

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