Michigan House Democrats split on backing Pelosi for speaker

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., meets with reporters on the day after the midterm elections in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018.

Washington — Michigan House Democrats are divided on supporting longtime leader Nancy Pelosi as the next speaker of the House after retaking the majority in Tuesday's midterm elections. 

Most of Michigan's incumbents indicated they would vote for Pelosi on the House floor if she's the caucus' nominee, but at least two congresswomen-elect — Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens — maintain their stance that new leadership is needed.

"I'm not about to just flip my principles now that I'm elected," Slotkin said this week.

Pelosi of California has been a favorite political target of Republicans, but this year a number of Democratic House candidates said during their campaigns that they want to see a new generation take the helm.  

So far, no candidate has stepped forward to challenge Pelosi's bid for the speaker's gavel. 

"Nancy was obviously able to push back," said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township.

"One of the criticisms that many candidates asserted was we could never be in the majority as long as she’s our leader. Well, we’re in the majority. I think the question is not the referendum on her, but what the next few years look like in terms of transition to new leadership."

Pelosi's office has rejected the notion that she won't have the 218 votes needed to be speaker when the election occurs in two months. 

"Leader Pelosi is confident in her support among members and members-elect," spokesman Drew Hammill said. "Democrats don’t let Republicans choose their leaders. The election proved that the GOP attacks on Pelosi simply do not work."

Pelosi, the first woman to serve as House speaker, has led the Democratic caucus for 15 years. She said this week she's the "best person" to be speaker. 

"It's not about what you have done. It's what you can do," Pelosi told reporters at the U.S. Capitol. "I think I'm the best person to go forward, to unify, to negotiate. I'm a good negotiator." 

During the campaign, Republicans ran attack ads depicting both Slotkin and Stevens as hand-picked by Democratic leadership, even though both said they wouldn't support Pelosi. Pelosi's House Majority PAC spent at least $1 million each on ads supporting Slotkin and Stevens.

Each could run the risk of being criticized by GOP opponent in two years if they cast a vote for Pelosi after suggesting they wouldn't. 

"Either Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens break their word with their first vote in Congress, or they incur the wrath of the likely speaker, and become a pariah to not only their own bases but to House leadership," said Michael Joyce, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. 

"Not the best way to start out a congressional term for these two carpetbaggers."

Michigan’s new Congress members, clockwise from upper left: Haley Stevens, Andy Levin, Rashida Tlaib, Elissa Slotkin

Slotkin of Holly defeated GOP Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester. When asked about Pelosi during her campaign, she said she'd support "the person that represents my district, my state, and I think that’s someone new." 

"I don't want to be disrespectful to anyone who’s served, especially a woman who has broken glass ceilings. I just think it's been really clear what we’re hearing from people on the ground on both sides of the aisle. They want something different," Slotkin said this week. 

"That’s still my answer. I haven't changed. ... We have to think about what kind of party we want to be. I think we need a new generation, and that's not just a talking point. That's for real." 

When asked about Pelosi, Stevens of Rochester Hills — who won election to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Dave Trott — also said her position hasn't changed. 

"I believe that we need new leadership, particularly leadership that’s going to speak to delivering for our Midwest — the people here in Michigan's 11th District," Stevens said.

"We probably need to get back in the business of focusing on the heartland issues." 

Asked if she would vote for Pelosi on the House floor, Stevens said: "At this time, Nancy Pelosi doesn’t have my support."

After winning her primary in August, former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit said she would "probably not" vote for Pelosi. 

Tlaib said Pelosi doesn't speak about the issues important to families in Michigan's 13th District, which includes parts of Detroit and Wayne County.

"For me, I need someone that, again, is connected with just the different levels of poverty that's going on — the fact that there are structures and barriers for working families in my district that need to be dismantled," Tlaib told CNN at the time.

"And supporting big banks and supporting efforts that I don't think put the people first is troubling. I need someone that fully understands why I am so passionate about those issues, why I am so eager to make sure their voices are heard." 

She underscored that position in an Aug. 9 interview with a Michigan Radio program. Her criticism of the leadership focused in part on its support for banks, noting how few African-American residents of Michigan's 13th District own a home. 

Tlaib has since softened her stance after speaking to Pelosi at least twice, but has not publicly committed to supporting her. 

"I have the third poorest congressional district in the country, and my priorities are conveying a vision of how to help residents and building relationships in Congress to support that vision," Tlaib said in a statement last month.

"I'll address leaderships votes if or when the opportunity arises," she said in an October statement.

Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township, who won election to represent the 9th District in Oakland and Macomb counties, praised Pelosi's leadership without committing to voting for her. 

"She’s amazing. I think she’s a pioneer. I think she’s a breaker of glass ceilings and has a tremendous track record as speaker and as leader of our party," he said.

"I don’t know why people are so eager to throw women of a certain age under the bus who are so accomplished. I have nothing but respect for Nancy Pelosi, and I honor her," he added.

Levin hosted Pelosi at a fundraiser in Bloomfield Hills last month to raise money for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

"The Republicans demonize her and then people say she’s too divisive. If you let Republicans pick our leaders, then they’ll just demonize the next one. To me, that just seems foolish," Levin said. 

"I know she’s running again, and I’ve certainly not worried about voting for Nancy Pelosi for leader if that’s what it comes down to. That will be fine."

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said she expects Pelosi will be re-elected but wants there to be discussion about how every member of the caucus participates. 

"We need to have a strong conversation about transition and helping to build the bench," Dingell said. 

"We’ve got to make sure the caucus is ensuring that everybody is able to participate fully, and that there’s places for everybody, and that we’ve got young people and new members deeply engaged."

Kildee expects House Democrats will have a "spirited debate." If Pelosi is the caucus' nominee, he will "absolutely" vote for her on the floor, he said.

"There’s a lot of interest in taking her up on something she just recently said — that if she is elected it would be as a transitional figure and that she would work to usher in the next generation of leaders," Kildee said.

"We don’t know what that will mean in terms of timing. We're going to want to know more about that. We’re going to obviously wait and see." 

Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield said last month she has not ruled out voting for Pelosi but wants to see who puts their name forward. 

"I am not writing off Nancy Pelosi, and I’m not saying who has my vote. I’m waiting to see who comes up, who puts their name in contention," Lawrence said. 

Democrats are expected to hold a secret-ballot vote in caucus later this year. The speaker's election takes place after the new Congress convenes in January. 


Twitter: @nannburke