Democratic leadership should be afraid of McKayla Wilkes

Ryan Cooper

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in some regards might be considered the second most powerful Democrat in the country right now. He is second-in-command in the chamber behind Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and he was given a primetime speaking slot before last week's vote to impeach President Trump. Yet Hoyer is also about to become the latest prominent Democrat to face a serious primary challenge.

The House leadership is simply not cutting the mustard, Hoyer's challenger, McKayla Wilkes, told The Week in an interview. A young black woman from a working-class background, she says current party leaders are out of touch with the country and their own districts. "Hoyer and Pelosi are leading the party badly," she said, "because they're taking tons of corporate money, not standing up to Trump, and they're not championing crucial ideas like Medicare-for-all and the Green New Deal."

Wilke's challenge is rightly seen as part of a growing leftist insurgency within the Democratic Party. If she manages to knock off Hoyer, it might be the strongest signal yet that the movement is winning the battle for the future of the party.

To be sure, party leadership was always going to be a challenge after Democrats won control of the House in 2018. The rise of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren has demonstrated that the party's previous moderate consensus has fractured. There is a large appetite from progressive voters for more confrontational, left-wing politics, particularly among younger people, a sentiment which is only growing as Millennials reach early middle age and Generation Z reaches voting age. It was these voters who largely propelled the victories of fresh faces like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.

And yet, the House leadership including Hoyer, which essentially holds institutional control of the party so long as President Trump remains in office, has done little to capitalize on this movement. Instead, they treat the left wing much as they did in the 1990s: as annoying gadflies to be ignored whenever possible.

Instead of a full-bore attack on Trump, they opted for a narrow impeachment focused solely on the Ukraine scandal — and only after dragging their feet for months. Instead of locking Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, or Mike Pompeo in the House basement to force them to testify, they proceeded with the impeachment vote without hearing from some of the central conspirators. And they have largely ignored Trump's wildly corrupt and unconstitutional profiteering off the presidency, not including it in the impeachment inquiry or any other major investigative hearing.

Their legislative priorities have also been less than bold. They passed a trade deal with Mexico and Canada that allows Trump to claim victory in his favorite policy area. And while they have passed a number of messaging bills that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promptly bottled up, even there the leadership has stymied the left. House leadership froze out progressives from negotiation over a bill to ostensibly lower drug prices, pushing a weak version that included one absolutely loony provision that would increase drug costs outside of Medicare so that program could get more money. That was removed only when the Congressional Progressive Caucus threatened to vote against the bill.

This brings me back to Hoyer's home turf, Maryland's 5th District. It is a very comfortably blue area: In every election since 1998, none of Hoyer's various Republican opponents got over 36 percent of the vote. Yet Hoyer is squarely in the middle of the Democratic caucus, and on its right in some areas — he voted for the Iraq War, is a firm partisan of Israel, voted for Wall Street deregulation in 2000, and voted to give China permanent normal trade relations that same year.

All these are major reasons why Wilkes is running. "My vision of the Democratic Party is a party that doesn't take corporate money and instead of triangulating to reach 2 percent of swing voters, does a ton of organizing to reach people who don't normally vote."

Her campaign is also about specific Maryland concerns on which Hoyer has failed to deliver. Wilkes supports a massive program of 7 million new social housing units not just because her district has a severe housing affordability problem, but because "I have friends, actually, who live in the woods in an abandoned school bus," she says. She supports sweeping criminal justice reform not just because of the mass incarceration crisis, but because she has personal experience with the Kafkaesque prison bureaucracy, having once been jailed without bail for the ridiculously piddling offense of driving on a suspended license. She supports Medicare-for-all not just because it is good policy, but because she personally knows "people struggling with long-term care, preventative care, and drug prices." Wilkes supports the Green New Deal not just because of climate change in general, but because her district's coastal communities are under dire threat from rising sea levels. "In Anne Arudnel County, in St. Mary's County, people are concerned about the level of the sea rise. People have homes that are on the water," she says. "It's actually amazing that we haven't been wiped out by a massive flood, because there are parts of Maryland that are surrounded by water."

World greenhouse gas emissions reached yet another record high in 2019. Neither the 5th District nor the country as a whole can afford more Democratic Party dithering as happened during the Obama years, with minor subsidies for renewables coupled to an epic fracking binge that made the U.S. the biggest producer of oil and gas in the world.

It's a bit hard to understand the mindset of the Democratic leadership. Age is certainly one factor. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (who has a primary challenger herself in attorney Shahid Buttar) is 79 years old. Hoyer is 80. Majority Whip Jim Clyburn is 77. At that age, it's rather common to get stuck in one's ways.

But it's not the whole story. Bernie Sanders, the most famous leader of left-wing Democrats, is 78. Elizabeth Warren is 70. Clearly being old in itself is no barrier to progressive politics or to being enormously popular among young people. No, the issue with Pelosi and company is not their age so much as how long they have been in politics, and particularly how long they have been at the top of the party.

Both Hoyer and Pelosi were elected in the 1980s, and both have been in and out of various House leadership positions for decades. Top Democrats of this generation internalized the Reagan revolution — believing that the New Deal was dead and buried, that capitalism is basically good, and that America is an unalterably center-right country. Hence left-wing candidates always lose (1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, 2004, and 2016 notwithstanding) and the best that be done for the American people are fiddly tax credits and janky market-friendly schemes like ObamaCare. And while it is always possible for someone to change their mind, the top House Democrats plainly have no intention of doing so.

The only way to change direction, it seems, is to knock the leadership out of their individual seats, and put in some fresh folks with fighting spirit. A leader can't "be a leader in just name only. You have to be a leader and actions have to show that. We have to be bold and we have to be brave," says Wilkes. Leadership is about "sticking your neck out there for the people who actually elected you." Her primary is April 28.

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