Jahana Hayes declares victory in the Democratic primary for the 5th Congressional District Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio
Jahana Hayes declaring victory on election night. Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio

Washington – When she’s sworn into the next Congress, Rep.-elect Jahana Hayes will not be your typical freshman lawmaker with limited influence. Instead, she will be joining a group with outsized clout — and the ability to potentially block Nancy Pelosi’s bid to be re-elected Speaker of the House.

Hayes, the first African-American woman to represent Connecticut in Washington D.C., plans to join the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of mostly progressive lawmakers whose numbers and power will grow in the 116th Congress when it is gaveled in on Jan. 3, 2019.

There will be more than 50 black Democrats and 37 Latinos in the 116th Congress, most of them Democrats.

Black lawmakers will have more than strength in numbers.  A number of them, who have steadily climbed Congress’ seniority ladder, will take over key House Committees next year, while other black lawmakers are poised to ascend to the top spots on more than a dozen subcommittees.

African-American lawmakers, including Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who helped Hayes campaign, and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., are also making bids for House leadership positions. Jeffries might even challenge Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is seeking to be House Speaker again.

When Hayes heads to Washington D.C. this week to attend a mandatory congressional orientation with her new colleagues, she won’t just be drawing her Capitol Hill office by lottery and sifting through resumes to staff her offices in Washington and the 5th District.

She will also join the new majority in the U.S. House, increasing both her chances  of getting good committee assignments and the odds that she will be lobbied by senior lawmakers, including Pelosi, who is facing a rebellion by a group of sitting House members and newly elected Democrats seeking younger leadership.

Pelosi must win two votes to become Speaker. One will be in the Democratic caucus and will be held after the Thanksgiving break. To win that vote, Pelosi will only need support from a majority of Democratic members.

In January, however, Pelosi must shore up support from most of the caucus to win the full House vote on the floor, which traditionally has a threshold of 218 votes, since no Republican is expected to vote for her. Democrats now have 225 of the House seats, with seven races undecided.

Hayes spokesman Andrew Doba said the congresswoman-elect has not made up her mind about whether she’ll support Pelosi.

“She hasn’t said 100 percent she’s going to vote for her, but she hasn’t said she would not either,” Doba said.

Connecticut’s other Democratic lawmakers, Reps. John Larson, D-1st District, Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and Jim Himes, D-4th District, are all expected to back Pelosi.

Campaigning for Connecticut’s sprawling 5th District seat this summer, Hayes appeared to join the group who favor change at the top of the ranks, saying, “We absolutely need new voices in our party.”

“It will make us stronger and will help us cultivate new ideas to move the country forward. I do not want that to be mistaken for removing all party leadership,” she said. “I am not trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Hayes also said “we need to usher in fresh faces and new leadership so that we represent diverse perspectives.”

“There is something to be said for the knowledge and experience of our current leadership,” she said. “However, if we are not opening the doors now to welcome future generations to the table, it is to our peril.”

The Congressional Black Caucus, to which Hayes will belong, may largely end up backing Pelosi, but its members are insisting that Democrats keep a representative of the group within the top three rungs of the House leadership.

That’s currently Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who is assistant to the leader and wants to be Majority Whip next year.

The growing influence of black lawmakers in the next Congress has prompted some CBC members to demand more than one black lawmaker in a top leadership position.

But another growing group in Congress —  to which Hayes will also belong —  also wants a seat at the table.

That is the group of  Democratic women lawmakers, who helped their party win the U.S. House and will account for 104 of the 435-member body. In contrast, there will be only 19 female Republican U.S. House members.

Rep. Dianne DeGette, D-Col., said the increase in House Democratic women should also be reflected in leadership when she announced she would be challenging Clyburn next week.

“Our return to the majority was powered by women voters across the country, and we need to repay their trust by adding women to Democrats’ leadership team,” DeGette said. “As we add even more women to our ranks in Congress — largely because of Democratic candidates — our caucus should reflect this strength, including at the leadership table.”

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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