Oakland congresswoman Barbara Lee on Monday told her colleagues that she intends to run for chair of the House Democratic Caucus, a job that will come open due to the stunning loss last month of the current chair, Rep. Joe Crowley of New York.
Crowley, 56, was widely thought to be next in line for speaker or minority leader when Nancy Pelosi gives up the top leadership job, until he lost a primary to Democratic newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Latina activist aligned with the most liberal wing of the party.
It's doesn't exactly rival a Giants/Dodgers series, but Lee's announcement means she'll be squaring off against another California Democrat, Linda T. Sanchez, the current caucus vice chair, who was the first to say publicly that she was running to replace Crowley.
"Linda (Sanchez) is highly respected and seen as a very competent legislator with a very strong voice in the committees she sits on," said Democratic consultant Katie Merrill.
Merrill added that "Barbara Lee is a progressive icon ... [who] has been revered across the country by progressives for nearly 20 years," for casting the sole vote in Congress against giving President George W. Bush broad authority to use force days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
The two are both women of color -- but they have different constituencies and styles. "It depends on what you think is needed in a caucus chair," Merrill said.
Sanchez, 49, surprised Democratic insiders earlier this year when she called for a change in party leadership, starting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who some critics say has become a liability in the Democrats' efforts to regain control of the House.
Sanchez, an eight-term lawmaker representing Los Angeles suburbs, said what many were thinking but dared not say, given Pelosi's strength as a fundraiser and party tactician.
But Pelosi still has strong support, especially within the California delegation.
"She knows when to fight a battle and when not to," said one Bay Area congressional staffer. "Frankly most of her liabilities are described by people on the other side of the aisle, including the criticism that she is from liberal San Francisco."
That said, the staffer didn't think it would hurt Sanchez outside the California delegation to have criticized Pelosi. "A lot people feel it’s OK to differ," he noted. "We need younger blood and people of color in leadership positions."
But one senior Democratic aide disagreed, saying "Sanchez has not united people" in her current role as caucus vice chair. He described Sanchez's call for all new leadership in the middle of an election "weird, unprofessional and amateurish. There’s no there there."
Sanchez's call for new party leadership may ring false if, as Democrats hope, they pick up the seats needed to win back the House.
"It’s unclear what the political landscape will look like after the 2018 elections," said Merrill. "Sanchez will either be seen as prescient and ahead of her time, or she’ll be out in the wilderness."
If Pelosi retains her party leadership position, Democrats representing other parts of the country may resist California having two of the party's top three leadership positions. That could open the door to another candidate for caucus chair, someone like Hakeem Jeffries, a popular, up-and-coming congressman from New York state. (A third Californian, Rep. Adam Schiff, is also said to be considering a leadership run but is yet to announce it.)
California currently holds 39 of the 194 House seats held by Democrats, a number party insiders are hoping to expand in November.
"Time and time again California is not only the place where conservative seats are being targeted by Democrats, but also the place Democrats often win those seats," said a high-ranking congressional aide. "That should be rewarded," he said.