Credit - Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images; Bill Clark—CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images (2)
When Nancy Pelosi this month announced the end of her historic tenure as the first female Speaker of the House, she set the stage for another historic shift in American politics: for the first time in U.S. history, the top ranks of House leadership for one party won’t include any white men.
“It has been with great pride in my 35 years in the House I have seen this body grow more reflective of our great nation, our beautiful nation,” Pelosi said in her retirement speech on November 17. “We have brought more voices to the decision-making table.”
House Democrats voted on their new leaders on Wednesday. The ascendancy of Hakeem Jeffries of New York, Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, and Pete Aguilar of California to House Democratic leader, whip, and caucus chair respectively will revamp the face of a body that has historically been controlled by old white men. And it will mark the first time ever for either party in either chamber of Congress to have no white men in any of the top leadership positions.
“The institution itself makes it difficult for non-white males to rise in leadership,” says Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “People tend to hang out with people who are like themselves. And I think that has always been part of the barrier for Latinos, African Americans, and women to rise in leadership.”
The new Democratic leaders come from very different backgrounds, but all have years of leadership experience in Congress, and experts say their rise demonstrates how the women and people of color have finally had the time to build institutional power in the House. “It’s taken this long in history, a couple centuries plus, for there to be a critical mass of non-white males in the House of Representatives within a particular party, having risen in seniority, and having demonstrated that their leadership capabilities are as good or better as anybody else’s,” Vargas says.
Jeffries, who will be the first Black leader of either political party, has served as caucus chair since 2019. Clark, who represents the suburbs of Boston, became assistant speaker last year. Aguilar, who is of Mexican descent, represents San Bernardino County and has already served as caucus vice chair, making him the highest-ranking Latino in Congress. Jim Clyburn, the 82-year-old Black South Carolinian who is currently House majority whip, hopes to join them as assistant Democratic leader. On Wednesday, David Cicilline of Rhode Island announced a surprise bid for the same position.
The historic new leadership team is gaining power at tumultuous moment for people of color in America. After the 2020 murder of George Floyd and ensuing Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Americans elected the most racially diverse Congress in history. But a backlash over discussions around structural racism has also flourished, as the way such issues are taught in schools and in books available at libraries have become political flash points.
Quentin James, the founder of the Collective PAC, which works to build Black political power, is excited about House Democratic leadership. But he’s also anticipating resistance. “I think it is indicative of what’s happening across the country,” he says. “[America] is in a moment of transition, where people who’ve been in power have to now share that power. And I think we see what that means for many of them: the rise of antisemitic behavior, the rise of white supremacy. We see, in my opinion, kids acting out, them not wanting to share their power or leadership.”
On the Republican side, white men still dominate House leadership. Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York is the only woman in a top spot. Jennifer Lawless, the Commonwealth Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, says that the contrast between the two leadership teams highlights a difference between the two parties’ priorities. “I don’t think the Republicans have ever had to pay a price for not fielding the same percentage of female candidates as the Democrats have, or for not electing the same percentage of people of color as the Democrats have,” she says. “I do think that, as far as the voters who have really turned out for Democratic candidates the last few cycles are concerned, this signals that their efforts paid off.”
Leadership has remained largely homogeneous in both parties in the Senate. Every Democratic leader in Senate history has been a white man. The same is nearly true for Republicans, with the exception of Charles Curtis, a member of the Kaw Nation who would become the nation’s Vice President under President Herbert Hoover after several years as Senate Majority Leader.
Since Republicans will soon control the House, it may be some time before the diverse new Democratic leadership team gets to exercise its power. Kenneth Lowande, an assistant professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan, has studied the impact of representation in Congress. If Democrats retake the House, Lowande expects that the new leadership team might prompt more votes on legislation that would benefit underrepresented communities and install more diverse members in positions on key committees.
Those changes could be years away, but with slow leadership turnover, Democrats’ vote on Wednesday is a crucial first step. “I’d say that really what this is,” Lowande says, “is the groundwork for something bigger.”