So not too much notice was directed last week at Nancy Pelosi’s first major intraparty defeat since she became House Democratic leader in 2003. She won that post by defeating colleague Steny Hoyer (they worked as interns in the same Maryland senator’s office in the early 1960s) and has been winning fights ever since. Until now.
That defeat was the election by the Democratic Caucus of New Jersey’s Frank Pallone to be ranking minority member of the Energy and Commerce Committee over Pelosi’s choice, California’s Anna Eshoo. The election was conducted by secret ballot, and the vote was 100-90.
Those numbers are a vivid contrast to the totals in what was probably the most dramatic leadership vote in the Democratic caucus, the contest for majority leader in 1976, 38 years ago. The winner was Texas’ Jim Wright, who would go on to become speaker after Tip O’Neill retired 10 years later. The loser was California’s Phil Burton. The vote was 148-147. Burton spent the rest of his life — he died suddenly in 1983, at 56 — trying to track down those who had committed to him but cast their secret ballot for Wright.
Do the arithmetic. There were 295 House Democrats voting in the caucus that year. This year there were 190.