Their House: A Power Guide To the New York Democrats

Even on a victorious team, there are still winners and losers. Case in point: the Democrats who will in January be sworn in to represent New York in the 110th Congress.

Yes, with the pickup on Tuesday of enough seats to put them in the majority in the House of Representatives, they’ll all be liberated, after a dozen years, from the indignities of minority status. But power and prestige will not be evenly distributed within the new majority.

Instead, each Democrat’s clout will largely be determined by an inexact formula that combines seniority—a tradition suddenly back in vogue, with Democrats tossing out the Republican-initiated term limits on committee chairmanships—and the answer to a timeless question endemic to hierarchical organizations the world over: Are you good with the man at the top?

In this case, of course, “the man” is actually a woman: Nancy Pelosi, the elegantly attired if publicly cold and over-scripted Speaker-in-waiting, who has shrewdly—even cuttingly—tightened her grip on the Democratic caucus into a veritable chokehold. Now it could be payback time for both her friends and enemies.

From a New York–centric standpoint, the new realities of life in the United States House are a mixed bag.

Charlie Rangel, for one, stands to reap vast political and legislative riches. His 36-year tenure—representing perhaps the safest Democratic seat in America—is all that he needs in the way of qualifications to snag the chairmanship of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, an elite posting that the 76-year-old will probably keep until he decides to retire. (Or until the Republicans win back the chamber.)

But more than that, Mr. Rangel has made himself an indispensable resource for Ms. Pelosi—not necessarily through the unblinking fealty her unforgiving and somewhat paranoid style demands, but rather by positioning himself as a vital bridge between the Democratic leadership and the 43-member Congressional Black Caucus, an all-Democratic group whose regular propitiation is supposedly vital to the continued ballot-box devotion of African-Americans to the Democratic cause.

This summer offered a revealing glimpse of the soon-to-be Speaker’s reliance on Mr. Rangel. Ms. Pelosi—horrified that her party risked losing ground to the G.O.P. on ethics—wanted badly to make a public example of William Jefferson, the New Orleans Democrat who, federal agents had discovered, stuffed about $90,000 in cash into his freezer. But forcibly revoking his seat on the Ways and Means Committee risked an ugly election-year food fight with the C.B.C., of which Mr. Jefferson was (and still is) a member.

Predictably, a good chunk of the C.B.C.’s rank-and-file erupted in protest when they caught wind of the plan. But Mr. Rangel, a founding C.B.C. member whose voice carries unrivaled influence within the group, played it pragmatically, privately assuring Ms. Pelosi that he’d see to it that the outcry wouldn’t be universal. So Ms. Pelosi plowed ahead and, very tellingly, Mr. Rangel and several other C.B.C. heavyweights uttered nary a public word on the matter: What could have been a divisive firestorm ultimately amounted to a forgettable mid-summer flare-up.

Mr. Rangel isn’t the only Empire State Democrat who will have hit the jackpot on Tuesday. Louise Slaughter, the feisty 77-year-old coal-miner’s daughter from Rochester by way of Kentucky, will chair the Rules Committee, a huge power center within the House. And Nydia Velázquez, who represents slices of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, will head up the Small Business Committee, a post that carries much less internal significance but nonetheless offers Ms. Velázquez the ego-enhancing title of “Madam Chairwoman.”

Others—indeed, most members of New York’s Democratic delegation—figure to do well. Internally inoffensive office-holders like Tim Bishop and Carolyn McCarthy, to name just two, may be years, if not decades, away from Rangel-esque seniority, but are sufficiently non-threatening to Ms. Pelosi that they should enjoy the incremental benefits of majority-party membership: better office space, easier access to federal funds and a theoretically open line to the Speaker.

Then there are the exceptions. Like Ed Towns and Joe Crowley.

Mr. Towns, the 72-year-old Brooklynite whose incumbency was extended this year thanks mainly to a fractured primary field, stands to lose something very valuable—namely his perch on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

It was a year ago that Ms. Pelosi, furious that Mr. Towns had inexplicably breached the party line in voting for the Central American Free Trade Agreement and that he’d skipped out on a key tax vote, ordered him to her Capitol Hill office for a dressing-down, pointedly warning that he had jeopardized his standing within the Democratic ranks. And when Mr. Towns, facing a primary challenge from Councilman Charles Barron, found himself in choppier-than-expected waters back in his district, Ms. Pelosi made it clear there’d be no life preserver tossed his way from D.C.

Her initial anger with Mr. Towns stemmed from her 2006 campaign strategy, which rested on mobilizing Democrats in unprecedented and unrelentingly blind opposition to any and all legislation championed by Republicans. There was in that playbook no room for safe-seat incumbents like Mr. Towns to stray from the flock—ever.

As with Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Towns’ status may depend on whether the C.B.C. puts its full weight behind his preservation. On a personal level, he has strained relations with many in the group, owing to his CAFTA vote and other apostasies. But as a matter of principle, even Mr. Rangel might not be able to stanch the uproar if, for the second time in six months, Ms. Pelosi applied a subjective standard and moved to flush a black Democrat from a committee post.

Mr. Crowley’s case is more complicated, since he has impressively harnessed his winning personality and access to massive sums of the New York financial industry’s money to build a formidable base among his House colleagues. And at 44 years old, the Queens Democrat—who recently succeeded his mentor, the late Tom Manton, as the Democratic chairman in Queens County—has clearly telegraphed a desire to climb his way into the House’s leadership, as opposed to seeking higher elected office.

The problem for Mr. Crowley is that he is one of Ms. Pelosi’s least favorite Democrats, virtually indistinguishable—in her eyes, at least—from Steny Hoyer, her sworn arch-nemesis and, at least for now, the second-ranking Democrat in the House.

The reason can be found in the bitter Pelosi-Hoyer rivalry, which is itself a fascinating study in clashing ambitions—only a year apart in age, they actually interned together four decades ago, in the office of Maryland Senator Daniel Brewster. Ms. Pelosi started on her path to the Speakership in 2001, when she defeated Mr. Hoyer by 23 votes for minority whip, an intensely rancorous contest that had proceeded, through starts and stops, for three years. When, a year later, Richard A. Gephardt stood down as minority leader, Ms. Pelosi slid into his post, and Mr. Hoyer was elevated to whip—an awkward (though, in a roundabout way, unifying) division of labor that has endured.

Working together, though, has not brought them any closer. Both Mr. Hoyer’s and Ms. Pelosi’s camps have routinely used the news media to engage in anonymous sniping at one another. No matter how innocuous, every public action that Mr. Hoyer takes is eyed by Ms. Pelosi as a potential mutiny. Mr. Hoyer regards her conduct with the same suspicion.

Which brings us to Mr. Crowley, who upon his arrival in Congress eight years ago hitched his wagon to Mr. Hoyer’s star. The partnership has brought Mr. Crowley some benefits: Mr. Hoyer named him a chief deputy whip and essentially took him under his wing. But as long as Ms. Pelosi is in power, Mr. Crowley figures to be a very frustrated man.

This reality was rather harshly delivered to him in January, when he stood for the position of vice chairman of the Democratic caucus, a job that is even less weighty than that of student-council secretary, but nonetheless the fourth-ranking post on the minority side as well as a proven stepping-stone. After more than a year of campaigning, Mr. Crowley was the odds-on favorite. And then he was unceremoniously defeated by John Larson, an undistinguished 58-year-old from Hartford, Conn., whose career, under other circumstances, could have maxed out in the State Legislature. Congressional observers couldn’t recall a bigger upset in a leadership race, and the reason was obvious: It was Ms. Pelosi putting Mr. Hoyer’s boy in his place.

That wasn’t the end of it, either. In June, Pennsylvania’s John Murtha—famous now as an outspoken foe of the Iraq War, but the quintessential Congressional dealmaker, and a socially conservative one at that—stunned the House by declaring his intention to oppose Mr. Hoyer for majority leader if the Democrats won back the chamber. Again, Ms. Pelosi’s hand seemed to be at work: Mr. Murtha is one of her closest House allies, as odd a pairing as they come. Mr. Murtha also loathes Mr. Hoyer and—not at all coincidentally—served as Mr. Larson’s campaign chairman in the vice chairman’s race.

Now that their party has won a majority, the Hoyer-Murtha race is on. Mr. Hoyer is the favorite. For his own sake, Mr. Crowley had better hope there’s not another upset.

Their House: A Power Guide To the New York Democrats