While Mahoning Valley Congressman Tim Ryan, a 43-year-old, 6 foot-plus, ex-high school football quarterback, was getting his clock cleaned by (dare it be said?) a grandmother from California – Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi – in the battle for leadership of the House Democratic caucus, another interparty war was taking place.
And this one, like the one on Capitol Hill, could have long-lasting political implications.
First, a review of the Ryan-Pelosi clash.
The seven-term congressman from Howland launched an audacious – and it turns out foolhardy – challenge to Pelosi’s rule as House minority leader.
And while Ryan’s bid became a national story because he was taking on one of the most powerful members of Congress, the outcome shows how wrong he was about the deep discontent among Democrats in the House of Representatives.
In secret balloting Wednesday during a meeting of the caucus, Pelosi, who is 76 years old, stands at 5-foot-5-inches, and has been in the House for 29 years, received 134 votes. Ryan garnered 63 votes.
And while he insists the outcome was a victory, the reality is that Pelosi sacked him (to use football lingo he understands.)
In making his bid for minority leader, the 13th District congressman ignored a cardinal rule of politics: Don’t take on a leader with a pocket full of IOUs.
Thus today, as Ryan licks his political wounds and tells himself that Pelosi won’t punish him for his defiance, the other battle of the Democrats is also playing out.
This one pits Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras against Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper.
At issue is a Columbus Dispatch story based on a postmortem of the Nov. 8 election attended by Republican and Democratic political operatives in the state.
Republican Donald Trump’s presidential win over Democrat Hillary Clinton was the highlight of the political forum, especially given the New York City billionaire businessman’s 9 percent margin of victory in Ohio.
It the was the following paragraph in the Dispatch story that caused Betras to blow his top:
The excitement wasn’t there for Clinton this year as it had existed in 2008 and 2012 for President Barack Obama, and it showed in the turnout, Pepper said. Clinton also was crushed by getting only 49 percent in normally reliable Democratic Mahoning County, Pickrell said.
Aaron Pickrell was senior adviser for the Clinton campaign in Ohio.
Betras fired off an email to Pickrell and Pepper with “I’m upset” in the subject line.
“I bust my hump and my ass for the cause and you say her low margins in Mahoning was a cause? Well f--- you both. I sent you memos about blue collars workers it went ignored. (sic)
“You are both elitist and ignored blue collar workers is ur fault.
“You guys f----- this up not me.
“Let’s examine the evidence.”
The Mahoning County Democratic chairman then provided an analysis of the votes cast for Clinton and for Democratic President Obama in 2012.
Betras ended his email to Pepper and Pickrell with this:
“Do me a favor and fall on your own sword. That’s for highlighting me to the [Dispatch]. You both owe me an apology. I just can’t f------ believe you guys said this.”
In last week’s column, this writer made reference to Betras’ angry rejection of the blame Pepper and Pickrell seemed to place on him.
Pepper responded to the piece with this email:
“Appreciated your column highlighting the continued success of Democrats in the Mahoning Valley.
“Just wanted to set the record straight that at no time have I ever ‘point[ed] the finger of blame’ at either Dave Betras or the valley. Not once.
“(Your column – “the attempt by state party Chairman David Pepper and Clinton campaign operatives to point the finger of blame at him” – writes that as if it’s fact.)
“First, personally, my style is not finger pointing in the first place.
“Second, the losses in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania suggest the loss came from forces well above and beyond what individual counties, regions or even states could control. Seems pretty clear. So I would never pinpoint a loss on one county, region or chair. And no one would take such a shallow ‘fingerpointing’ seriously if it was even tried.
“Just wanted to set the record straight should the topic come up again.”
This writer replied to the state chairman by noting that Betras and his wife, Dr. Pamela Barkett, had initiated separate telephone calls during which they vehemently rejected the idea that the Mahoning County Democratic Party had failed to deliver for Clinton.
Indeed, Barkett was much more animated than her husband, pointing out that he had spent most of his time in the months leading up to the election away from home – pounding the pavement and working the phones for Clinton and other Democratic candidates on the ballot.
Like Congressman Ryan, Chairman Betras is of the opinion that the Democratic Party nationally has taken for granted the voters who have served as the foundation upon which past party successes were built.
And just as Ryan decided to shake up the Democratic establishment by challenging Pelosi for minority leader, Betras may be toying with the idea of taking on Pepper for the state party chairmanship.
In his email to Pepper and Pickrell, he tossed out this veiled threat:
“I should run for state chair and fire the entire lot [because you] guys f----- this up not me. I won my county. Tsk tsk”
There is precedence for a change in the leadership of the state party after it suffers a drubbing at the polls.
In 2014, then-Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern, under pressure from long-time party insiders, resigned after Republican Gov. John Kasich won re-election in a landslide over Democrat Ed FitzGerald.
There’s speculation that Congressman Ryan’s bid for minority leader was actually his opening gambit for an ultimate run for governor of Ohio in 2018.
Having Betras firmly in his corner would certainly help him solidify his support in the heavily Democratic Mahoning Valley.
From the ashes that is the Democratic Party today could rise two phoenixes. Then again, Ryan and Betras could simply emerge as burnt turkeys.