LOS ANGELES (AP) — The highly public rift between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a clutch of freshmen congresswomen led by Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has spilled into the 2020 Democratic presidential contest. The intramural conflict is threatening to overshadow United States (US) President Donald Trump’s history of race-baiting and xenophobia.
Seizing an opportunity to rile his opponents, Trump on Friday offered a finger-wagging rebuke to Ocasio-Cortez and a defence of Pelosi. “She is not a racist,” he said of the speaker, who rarely hides her contempt for the president and certainly was not seeking his support.
While many Democrats had hoped to use the president’s history on race against him, the party’s 2020 hopefuls are finding they first need to reconcile the matter internally.
Former Vice President Joe Biden cited Trump’s tacit support for white supremacists as the primary motivation for his White House bid. Yet Biden has struggled in recent weeks to explain his own record on race, including his work with segregationist lawmakers in the early 1970s, support for a crime bill that disproportionately hurt minorities and racially insensitive comments about school desegregation decades ago.
In the first Democratic presidential debate last month, California Senator Kamala Harris skewered Biden’s record on race, and his support in public polls has declined since.
Now that debate is also playing out on Capitol Hill in the feud between two prominent congresswomen: Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in Washington, and Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old self-described democratic socialist who is one of four members of a high-profile “squad” of newly elected women of colour.
Pelosi sought to minimise Ocasio-Cortez’s influence in recent days, while Ocasio-Cortez called the speaker “disrespectful” and accused her of marginalising women of colour.
The friction has forced the party’s presidential candidates to weigh in. And so far, no one wants to pick sides.
Harris described Ocasio-Cortez as “bold and smart as anything” but declined to criticise Pelosi in a Friday interview with The Breakfast Club, a New York-based radio show.
“She’s not going to go with status quo because that’s the way it’s always been done, she questions it. I think that’s healthy,” Harris said of Ocasio-Cortez. “I think that when you have anyone who is as smart and as bold as her questioning the system and doing it in such an effective way, it can throw people off their game.”