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Pelosi defends handling of 4 House women as Democrats fume about Ocasio-Cortez’s top aide

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/11/2019 Mike DeBonis, Paul Kane, Rachael Bade
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Several African American and Latino Democrats rallied around House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused her of targeting “newly elected women of color” through a series of public remarks dismissing their political influence inside the House.

The suggestion from the outspoken liberal freshman, made in a Washington Post article published Wednesday, stunned those Democrats, and it compounded their lingering anger after Ocasio-Cortez’s top aide publicly accused some colleagues last month of racist actions for supporting a compromise border spending bill.

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“What a weak argument, because you can’t get your way? And because you are getting pushback, you resort to use the race card? Unbelievable. Unbelievable to me,” Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said of Ocasio-Cortez’s remark.

Pelosi refused to respond directly to Ocasio-Cortez’s accusation at a Thursday news conference but said she had to speak out to defend her moderate members after the aide’s tweet.

Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, referred to members of moderate Democratic groups in a tweet last month as “New Southern Democrats” who are “hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s.”

The aide later deleted the tweet but posted other tweets saying the moderates’ actions “still enable a racist system.”

“Our members took offense at that,” Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters. “I addressed that. How they’re interpreting and carrying it to another place is up to them, but I’m not going to be discussing it any further.”

The tweet and Ocasio-Cortez’s latest remark have inserted an explosive racial dimension into the simmering feud between Pelosi and “the Squad” — freshman Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — one that burst into a full boil this week when Pelosi told the New York Times that the four “didn’t have any following,” citing their lonely votes last month against a Democratic-crafted bill to address the southern border crisis.

Ocasio-Cortez responded in the Post interview, calling Pelosi’s comments “just outright disrespectful . . . the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.” Ocasio-Cortez is of Puerto Rican descent, Pressley is African American, Omar is a Somali immigrant and Tlaib is Palestinian American.

Pelosi said Thursday in response: “We respect the value of every member of our caucus. The diversity of it all is a wonderful thing. Diversity is our strength. Unity is our power. And we have a big fight, and we’re in the arena and that’s all I’m going to say on the subject.”

Other veteran Democrats said Ocasio-Cortez’s comment struck a discordant note.

“It is a provocative statement,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. “The speaker has a lot of allies inside the caucus who are people of color. A lot — you know, like 99 percent.”

Clay rebuked Chakrabarti — a former leader of the Justice Democrats, a left-wing activist group that has supported primary challenges to Clay and other veteran minority Democrats: “It shows you how ignorant and little history he knows, how ignorant he is to American history. How dare he.”

In a CNN interview Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez stood by her statement and said she was “really just pointing out a pattern.”

“We’re not talking just about progressives — it’s singling out four individuals, and, knowing the media environment that we’re operating in, knowing the amount of death threats that we get, knowing the amount of concentration of attention, I think it’s just worth asking why.”

Asked whether she thinks Pelosi harbors racial animus, she said: “No, no, absolutely not, absolutely not.”

Tlaib on Thursday tweeted a quote she attributed to tennis star Serena Williams: “Rarely are the places and the minds that need changing going to greet that change with open arms,” it read in part. (It was originally from a Chicago Tribune column celebrating Williams, not from Williams herself.)

The “Squad” won backing Thursday from some liberal allies. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said she and co-chairman Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) have requested a meeting with Pelosi “not just to talk about this, but to talk about the general relationship of the progressives to the Democratic caucus.”

“I generally have seen Speaker Pelosi be very, very respectful of her members,” Jayapal said. But, she added, “The comments she made, however she meant them, have a certain interpretation, obviously, and I think it’s just important that we clear this.”

But several other minority lawmakers said it wasn’t Pelosi who was in the wrong. Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called Pelosi a “proven leader with a lot of experience and maturity” and questioned the relevance of Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks.

“When you have a Thanksgiving dinner, you’re always going to have an uncle or sister-in-law or cousin that comes in, and, you know, we have in my family a robust argument about baseball, about politics,” he said. “And then after that we break bread and we have dinner.”

Leaving a private member meeting Thursday morning, Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) said members were buzzing about both Chakrabarti’s tweet and Ocasio-Cortez’s remark.

“Clearly the speaker has been inclusive of women of color,” he said. “When you have a caucus like we have, that has been as diverse as ours, the speaker has been very inclusive.”

The tweet was “insulting” and “a big issue,” Meeks added. “To try to compare this to what African Americans went through? . . . I think the African American community deserves an apology for that.”

Some Democrats, however, are looking for more than an apology from Ocasio-Cortez and Chakrabarti.

“They want him out,” said a senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal conversations, noting the Justice Democrats’ continuing advocacy for the ouster of several minority Democrats. Chakrabarti recently tweeted support for Jessica Cisneros, who is challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.).

Pelosi told reporters Thursday she was “not going to discipline a member’s staff: “That’s up to the member to do.” She added that she was unaware of his tweet “until members came to me, some almost crying, some very upset and angry about the language” used to describe members of the centrist Blue Dogs and New Democrats, prompting her to speak out at Wednesday’s caucus meeting.

Corbin Trent, a spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez, declined to comment on the criticism of Chakrabarti.

At a Wednesday meeting in Pelosi’s office, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), chairman of the New Democrat Coalition, told Pelosi in stark terms that moderates were irate about Chakrabarti’s tweet — specifically citing Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), one of several moderate African Americans representing a Southern district.

Sewell has tried multiple times to discuss the matter with Ocasio-Cortez, Kilmer said in the meeting, but has not gotten her calls returned. Two people present described the exchange on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the meeting.

“As the speaker says, our diversity is our strength and our unity is our power, and I think that’s true,” Kilmer said as he left Pelosi’s office Wednesday, declining further comment.

Sewell said Thursday the tweet was “offensive” and issued a written statement noting that she was subject to bigotry while growing up.

“So, to even insinuate that I, or any other member of the New Dems, would promote policies that are racist and hateful or ones that would negatively impact communities of color is deeply offensive and couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said in the statement.

Pelosi on Wednesday told fellow Democrats in a closed-door meeting not to air their grievances with other Democrats. Members or staff who feel inclined to publicly criticize a Democratic colleague should “think twice,” she said, before adding: “Actually, don’t do that: Think once.”

“You got a complaint? You come and talk to me about it,” she continued, according to two people present for the remarks. “But do not tweet about our members and expect us to think that that is just okay.”

Said Cleaver: “I think that the speaker said all that is required to address this. . . . The speaker spoke for a lot of people — the overwhelming majority of the people in the Democratic caucus.”

mike.debonis@washpost.com

paul.kane@washpost.com

Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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