The effort by a small group of Democratic lawmakers to keep Nancy Pelosi from reclaiming the speaker’s gavel hit two snags in the lead-up to the Thanksgiving holiday, when two members of that faction threw their support behind the minority leader – including one who had emerged as a potential challenger.
Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, who said last week that she was mulling a bid for speaker, announced Tuesday evening — in a statement released by Pelosi’s office — that she will not only refrain from challenging Pelosi, but would also support both Pelosi’s candidacy and that of her top two deputies, Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer and South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn.
Simultaneously, Pelosi announced that she would give Fudge oversight of efforts to reinstate and improve voting rights. Fudge will now chair the Subcommittee on Elections, which Pelosi announced she was reinstating just minutes before releasing Fudge’s endorsement.
On Wednesday morning, another lawmaker, Rep. Brian Higgins, who just two days earlier had signed a letter calling for new leadership, announced that, like Fudge, he would be backing Pelosi.
Both Fudge and Higgins announced their respective decisions after meeting with the minority leader, a subtle reminder of the power Pelosi wields in doling out legislative assignments that can be crucial to lawmakers’ careers and shaping the House agenda. Higgins, for instance, said he was swayed after Pelosi assured him she would work with him on lowering the age for Medicare eligibility to 50.
“Some will ask why I have changed my position,” Higgins said in a statement. “The answer is simple: I took a principled stand on issues of vital importance not only to my constituents in Western New York but also to more than 300 million Americans whose lives can be improved by progress in these areas. A principled stand, however, often requires a pragmatic outlook in order to meet with success.”
Fudge said in the statement released by Pelosi’s office that she had considered running for speaker because she was concerned about the lack of diversity in party leadership. Pelosi, Fudge said, has “assured me that the most loyal voting bloc in the Democratic Party, black women, will have a seat at the decision making table.” Her announcement came less than a week after Fudge met with Pelosi, an exchange orchestrated by likely Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, who is supporting the minority leader’s bid for speaker.
But other obstacles Fudge would encounter in running for speaker also were on display Tuesday. Reports emerged that Fudge had sent a letter of support vouching for a former Ohio judge, Lance Mason, after he admitted to beating his wife, Aisha Fraser, in 2014. Mason was recently arrested in connection with the death of Fraser, who was found stabbed to death this past weekend. (Fudge released a statement Tuesday claiming, in part, “the person who committed these crimes is not the Lance Mason familiar to me” and said she was mourning the loss of Fraser.)
Fudge endorsed Pelosi just one day after a group of 16 current and incoming lawmakers circulated a letter calling for new leadership on the House floor — an implicit acknowledgement they would not vote for Pelosi in January, when she formally seeks the gavel. This number that now stands at 15 now that Higgins is supporting her. Fudge had been a part of that group — aides to lawmakers leading the effort said she was on the list last week — but she wasn’t among the signatures when the letter was released on Monday. At the time, one Democratic aide downplayed the significance of that omission, telling TIME it was because she was still mulling a run, though those aligned with Pelosi viewed it as a positive. Clearly, it was the latter who was right.
To be sure, the math is still a hurdle for Pelosi. In order to become speaker, she needs 218 votes on the House floor in January. Democrats are currently projected to hold 233 seats. If that number holds, she can only afford to lose 15 votes. But the signatures on the circulated letter did not include the handful of at least nine members in next year’s Congress who said during their campaigns they would not support Pelosi as speaker. Representatives for two people on that list, Rep. Conor Lamb and incoming Rep. Jason Crow, said they were still declining to support Pelosi, even if they didn’t sign the letter.
Democratic aides to those leading the effort to keep Pelosi from the speakership argue that while this is not an ideal situation, the numbers are still in their favor, even if it results in a fight on the floor of the House in January.
“It’s a setback optically, but mathematically we’re still sound,” said one Democratic staffer. “If the floor vote were tomorrow she wouldn’t have the votes.“