Running to Lead the New Dems, DelBene Reflects on the Coalition’s Past, Promising Future

November 20, 2020 by Dan McCue
Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., with other members of the New Democrat Coalition during a pre-COVID news conference.

WASHINGTON – During a week when newly elected members of Congress were all over Capitol Hill for their formal orientation, Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., remembered how vastly different her experience was in 2012.

Jay Inslee, the previous representative of Washington State’s 1st Congressional District, had decided not to run for re-election, opting instead to pursue an ultimately successful bid for governor.

The district itself had just been redrawn, making it competitive for a Democrat, but by no means a slam dunk.

And then there was the fact she had to run two races at once — one a special election to fill the last two months of Inslee’s seventh term (and held within the old, more unfavorable boundary lines of the “old” 1st Congressional District), and the other, a regular election in the “new” version of the district for a full two-year term.

She won both, defeating Republican John Koster handily, and on Nov. 13, 2012, she was sworn in as the district’s representative for the remainder of the 112th Congress.

Her early start gave her a leg up on many of the newly elected freshmen that year, those who wouldn’t begin their new lives until the start of the 113th Congress the following January, but it also meant she never had the benefit of an orientation.

Without it, she recalled in a recent letter to her colleagues, “the New Democrat Coalition was instrumental in teaching me the ropes, helping me build relationships and contributing to my success.”

Eight years later, DelBene is running unopposed to succeed Rep. Derek Kilmer, a fellow Washington State native, as chair of the alliance of centrist Democrats.

The election will be held in early December, at which time members will also be choosing among seven contestants for four vice chair positions.

On Thursday, DelBene spoke of the coalition she hopes to lead a few weeks from today, and the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead as Washington, D.C., becomes home to a Democratic Biden administration.

“Oh I was definitely aware of the New Dems before I got to Washington,” she said when asked about the path she took to get to Congress.

“There’s kind of a long tradition of Democratic members from Washington State belonging to the coalition,” she said. “There was former Representative Norm Dicks, and Jay Inslee, and Reps. Rick Larsen and Adam Smith, who were here when I arrived and are still here now.

“And then of course there’s our current chair, Derek Kilmer … and in fact, of the seven Democrats who currently represent Washington State in Congress, six are New Dems,” she said.

DelBene went on to attribute the New Dems appeal to lawmakers in her state to a number of factors, but perhaps none more important than their experience of running in competitive districts that range from “red-purple to blue-purple to pretty much purple.”

“My own district was created to be the most evenly divided in the country,” she said. “That’s what I was told at the time, and I’ve always said it was set up to be a ‘jump ball’ district. And I think the key thing running in a district like that teaches you is how important it is to listen to different points of view, and realizing that in many cases, there aren’t easy answers.”

“You’ve got to listen, take in all the information, and come up with solutions to address issues, keeping in mind all those different perspectives. And I think that’s something that’s at the core of the New Dem philosophy,” she continued.

“We are a coalition of folks who are trying to get things done, and we understand that building a strong coalition is hard, but it’s also a key part of the legislative process,” she said.

Relationships Start Early

DelBene said these days the outreach by the New Democrat Coalition to prospective members begins early, with involvement and support in newcomers’ campaigns.

“For instance, Congresswoman-elect Marilyn Strickland, from Washington State, ran as a New Dem-endorsed candidate and she’s taking the seat in the 10th Congressional District of Denny Heck, who was also a New Dem and is about to become our lieutenant governor.

“Other candidates that the New Dems engaged as candidates were Carolyn Bourdeux of Georgia, Sara Jacobs of California, and Kathy Manning and Deborah Ross, both of North Carolina … and we’re continuing to build on those relationships now that they are here for orientation,” DelBene said.

She quickly added though that other members of the new freshman class may join the New Democrat Coalition later on.

“We have folks who only learn about the New Dems when they come to Congress, and they’ll express an interest in the coalition. In cases like that, we’ll conduct kind of an interview process to explore their interest … and enable them to join in the middle of a Congress,” she said.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

One big reason for the New Dems appeal is its reliance on task forces that allow members to be heard on issues even if they are not members of a specific House committee of jurisdiction.

“By building these task forces, we’re able to bring members of the coalition together to focus on issues we believe are critically important,” DelBene said. “Some may have a committee assignment that’s relevant to the task force, but in other cases, the specific member might simply have an interest in a particular issue, like housing.

“So we’ll bring interested people together to discuss the issue and put together policy proposals from many different perspectives. That helps inform the overall membership of the coalition and also allows us to completely endorse the pieces of legislation and work as a coalition to move them forward,” she said.

Currently the New Democrat Coalition has eight task forces, addressing transportation, infrastructure, the climate congress, national security, technology, the future of work, and trade.

A Good Day for New Dems

About an hour before DelBene spoke to The Well News, the House Democratic caucus elected two New Dems for leadership posts. The first was Pete Aguilar of California, who was elected vice chair of the caucus, and the other was Rep. Colin Allred of Texas, who will now be a caucus leadership representative for members who have served five terms or fewer.

“Today was exciting,” DelBene said.

She noted that during Kilmer’s tenure as New Deal Coalition chair, House Speaker Pelosi had a regular weekly call with leaders across the caucus to discuss issues and pending legislation.

“I am hopeful that those will continue, so that there’s an ongoing dialogue,” she said.

DelBene herself, along with fellow New Dem Reps. Brad Schneider of Illinois, and Ami Bera of California, served as Frontline co-chairs this year, working with vulnerable members in target districts, with their re-election efforts.

“We’re very engaged in helping other members, and I think that’s very important, particularly given how diverse a caucus we are,” she said.

“When we talk about policy that’s going to make a difference across the country, those efforts make a real difference because we’ve been there and heard from a broad set of voices,” she said.

“Our goal is to kind of be at the center of the dialogue and to try to figure out how to build coalitions that gets things done,” she said.

Bridging Differences

DelBene said at the end of the day that’s the reason people are interested in joining the New Dem Coalition. They know it’s a place where members can have a healthy debate, share ideas, and more than anything else, be listened to.

“We have lunches every week when we’re in D.C. We bring in speakers, sometimes we have discussions among ourselves, but either way, it’s an important opportunity for folks to learn about issues they might not understand, to ask questions, and to come understand why someone else might have a different point of view, or hear a different point of view that they didn’t quite expect.

“And the while, as we’re doing this, we’re thinking, ‘Okay, where can we come together?’ and ‘Where is the opportunity to resolve these differences?'” DelBene said. “I think that’s really at the heart of how our democracy works … how Congress has always been set up to work.”

A moment later, the representative was talking about her expectations about life in Washington during a Biden administration. She was asked whether she thinks the era of presidents ruling by fiat and executive order is about to come to an end.

“I think it’s very important that Congress legislate. That’s our job,” she said. “It’s part of our Constitutional law. And it’s the way we really build durable, lasting policy.

“Now, we may see executive actions to address some of the really terrible things that President Trump has done, especially with respect to something like immigration, but at the end of the day we need Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform,” she continued, adding, “To really have durable change and to make sure we have strong policy, Congress needs to act and Congress needs to pass legislation to address the broken immigration system.”

DelBene, who in another life worked in the tech world, including two stints in executive positions at Microsoft, said the New Dems also understand that the world is changing.

“So staying up to date with what’s happening from a policy perspective has also been a priority for the coalition,” she said. “We understand that as the folks involved in crafting legislation, we need to make sure that the policies are up to date with the way the world works.”

“When I talk about the future, one of the things I think it critical for the News Dems to address is dealing with our new realities — like portable benefits,” she said.

“We have systems in place that were built based on a way the world worked and the way employment worked decades ago, but people don’t stay in the same job or work for the same employer most of their career anymore,” she said. “We really haven’t adapted to that. So the question is, ‘what do we need to do to adapt to change and bring the policy up to date?’

“These are issues that I think we’ve tried to take the lead on, and having an administration that we can work with, that can partner with us as we work to address these issues, is incredibly important, but also an incredible opportunity,” DelBene said.

“And I should also add that we all have the opportunity for these to be bipartisan efforts,” she said. “We need to find folks who are willing to step up and work together on issues, regardless of party affiliation. Because if there’s one thing I hear from my district — and I think it’s true of many people’s districts — it’s that our constituents want to see governance work. They want to see folks come together and create policies that will make important changes for our country.

“One thing I often say is, ‘We may not agree on everything, but there may be specific issues we can build coalitions around,'” DelBene said. “I think going forward, we need to learn what’s working and what’s not working and we need to use science and data to inform us going forward. Those are things that are important to New Dems. And I think we have this important opportunity with the Biden administration to help lead the way on important issues.”

“The key is to keep working together. You know, to keep having those conversations. Because if you don’t even start, then you don’t have an opportunity to get across the finish line,” she said.

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