Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are already rallying behind Representatives Gregory Meeks as a possible replacement for Representative Eliot Engel, the Foreign Affairs chairman who appears to have lost his primary race this week.
Meeks is the third-ranking Democrat on the panel, behind Engel and Congressman Brad Sherman , suggesting Sherman would have an advantage within a Democratic Caucus that has long considered seniority to be a major — if not the primary — factor in deciding committee heads.
Yet amid the national unrest over racial injustice in law enforcement — which has found the country reckoning with its racist past and Congress rushing to combat police violence against African Americans — some CBC leaders say the math has changed, and seniority should not eclipse efforts to diversify the Democrats’ power structure.
“Seniority is waning as a major factor in consideration for chairmen,” said Representative G.K. Butterfield , a former CBC chairman. “It’s a new political environment now. We need a diverse set of committee chairs because that makes a statement to the country that the House of Representatives is reflective of the country. And the fact that Mr. Meeks is African American, I think, is a major factor, and maybe should trump — let me not use that word — be of more weight than seniority.”
Such thinking marks a shift within the CBC, which has derived much of its power on Capitol Hill from members rising to the top of committees based largely on seniority. The group boasts gavels on four key panels, including Financial Services, Homeland Security and Education and Labor.
But in the event of Engel’s ouster — and a subsequent race between Sherman and Meeks to head Foreign Affairs next year — prominent members of the group are already indicating they’re ready to discard the seniority formula.
“I think seniority is the major consideration but not the only one,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and a Meeks supporter. “People want to know: Can that person get along with other members of the committee? Can that person get along with other Democratic members of the Caucus?”
“Those are the three primary ingredients,” he added.
Representative Gerry Connolly, the fifth-ranking Democrat on the panel, is also taking a look at the chairman’s race, but said he won’t make any announcements until after Engel officially concedes defeat.
“Foreign policy, that’s the expertise I bring to Congress. It’s a passion of mine,” Connolly, a former staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill on Thursday. “But I believe it’s premature to be speculating given the fact that the outcome of the chairman’s race in New York has not been determined.”
“Would I be interested? Yes, of course. Am I running? Will I run? Those are different questions that have to be assessed if and when the opportunity arises,” said Connolly, who lost a race for the Oversight Committee gavel last year to the more senior Representative Carolyn Maloney
Representative Karen Bass , the CBC chairwoman and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is also downplaying the primacy of seniority in choosing committee heads. While emphasizing that it’s too early to know the roster of candidates who might vie to replace Engel if he loses, she was also quick to note that Democrats have, at times, empowered junior members to leapfrog over more experienced lawmakers on committees.
Democrats prioritize seniority “until we don’t,” she said. “Of which you’ve seen many times.”
Bass made clear that she’s not interested in the Foreign Affairs gavel.
Indeed, Engel rose to become top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs panel by jumping over the more senior Sherman, who had ruffled feathers in the caucus by defeating Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), a popular party veteran, in a fierce 2012 primary after redistricting. Democrats said they remember Sherman attacking Berman, then the ranking member of Foreign Affairs, for focusing too much on international travel rather than his district back home.
“Brad has enormous baggage,” said one Democrat on Foreign Affairs. “And the Californians of that era do not forget what Brad Sherman did to Howard Berman. Not that he beat him, but how he beat him: attacked him for doing his job.”
Meanwhile, both Sherman and Meeks are playing it coy. Both noted that the votes in Engel’s primary race are still being counted, and both were careful not to project an image that they’re lobbying to replace him.
“The race hasn’t been called. They’re going to count every vote, and I have tremendous respect for Eliot Engel,” Sherman said.
Still, Sherman endorsed the notion that seniority should outweigh most other factors, and seemed to allude to the CBC’s previous support for that very position.
“I’m on record: I’ve always honored the seniority system. And others I think are on record also,” he said. “But that’s for some other time.”
Meeks had endorsed Engel when it became clear that his challenger, a liberal African American educator named Jamaal Bowman, was posing a serious threat to Engel’s bid for a 17th term.
“What I’m interested is trying to make sure every vote is counted for Mr. Engel, because my priority is to make sure that Mr. Engel remains as chair of this committee,” Meeks said Wednesday. “And there’s a whole lot of votes out there to be counted. And I know that every vote counts.”
While publicly reticent, both Sherman and Meeks are jockeying for position.
Sherman is said to be calling colleagues in search of their support. And outside the Capitol, where Democrats had gathered Wednesday morning to promote their police reforms, Meeks was seeking an audience with some members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. And those members seemed to know it.
“I’ve got to talk to you,” Meeks said to Congressman Jim Costa.
“I know,” Costa responded.
Engel, a congressman for over three decades, was elected to the chairmanship in 2018 when Democrats took the majority in the House. He had earlier served as the ranking member and as chairperson and ranking member of the subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
His campaign for re-election was thrown in jeopardy earlier this month when he was caught on a hot mic seemingly saying he wouldn’t have attended an event against racial injustice in his district if he wasn’t competing in a primary.
That moment gave ammunition to his challenger, Bowman, to paint the congressman as out of touch with his constituency and receive critical endorsement from progressives in the House, like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez .
Establishment Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer , former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo came out behind Engel in the days leading up to the primary election.
As chairman, Engel is overseeing two probes against the Trump administration, an investigation into the firing of the State Department’s inspector general and a purge of senior officials at the U.S. Agency for Global Media by Trump’s appointee to lead the agency.
A staunch supporter for Israel, Engel has made his mark on the committee focusing on ensuring security assistance for the Jewish state while also promoting a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.
As chairman, he has advanced a human rights agenda, drafting the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act that put sanctions on Syria’s President Bashar Assad and others complicit in the indiscriminate killing, torture and suffering of civilians caught up in almost a decade of war.
Engel is unlikely to admit defeat until all votes are counted in the district, something that could last well past the end of the month as absentee ballots continue to funnel in.
But the current numbers favor Bowman, who has more than 60 percent of the counted votes.
“He’s in the woods right now, and June 30 will be the final revelation,” Butterfield said. “But I suspect that it is not good.”