When two veteran members of Congress kicked one of their own Democratic colleagues to the curb on Wednesday, even they had to admit it was an unprecedented act.
By condemning Rep. Dan Lipinski and publicly endorsing his little-known primary opponent, Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Jan Schakowsky did the unthinkable, plunging a knife into the back of a neighboring Chicago-area congressman whom they’d served with in Congress for over a decade.
“It’s not easy to endorse a challenger for a colleague in the House of Representatives. Especially when that colleague is a member of your own party,” Gutierrez said at a news conference in Washington.
But, he said: “This is a very special, and, I think, dangerous time in the United States of America.”
Gutierrez framed the public shunning as a necessary response in the Donald Trump era: Democrats needed to unite against the president, and Lipinski couldn’t be counted on to vote reliably with Democrats.
And yet there’s more to it than that. The act of throwing Lipinski under the bus was an exercise in bare-knuckled Chicago politics, and it was also a tale of a party that is an increasingly awkward fit for centrists like Lipinski.
“There’s an effort that is very detrimental to the Democratic Party, in that there’s the Tea Party of the Left that some people said they wanted to create. That’s bad for the party. That’s not going to be helpful in growing our numbers,” said Lipinski, who noted that the Tea Party movement was responsible for Trump’s ascendance. “I think we have to acknowledge that the way to get back into the majority into the Congress and pick up seats is to make sure we are a big-tent party and reaching out to people are moderate and not just push to the left.”
Asked if he felt betrayed by his colleagues, Lipinski said he wasn’t surprised at all.
“Jan has worked against me in the past. She’s never come out formally against me. Her husband has been straight about working against me,” Lipinski told POLITICO. “It certainly does not surprise me. Even though I have supported her when she ran for vice chair of the caucus … I’ve been back and forth with Luis. He’s been with me, he’s not been with me. I’m not sure what his future is.”
To progressive groups angling to oust Lipinski, the seven-term Democrat is finally getting his comeuppance after years of votes against their interests. He was the only Illinois Democrat to vote against the Affordable Care Act, and the only Democrat in the House not to sign onto the Equality Act, which expands protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. He also voted against the Dream Act, angering Chicago-area Hispanics.
Then there is Lipinski’s position on abortion, a sticking point in a party that has few remaining opponents of abortion rights.
Gutierrez and Schakowsky both cited Lipinski’s opposition to abortion as out of step with his district.
“I assure you that this district is overwhelmingly pro-choice,” said Schakowsky.
By endorsing Marie Newman, a businesswoman and former marketing consultant, Schakowsky and Gutierrez joined powerful national groups that have already coalesced behind the challenger, including NARAL, MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Human Rights Campaign. Those groups expect a surge in progressive votes in the primary, providing the opportunity to oust one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress.
Still, Newman will need all the help — and money — she can get against Lipinski, whose family has held a seat in the district for decades.
“I am hoping it will encourage some donors to decide that they would support Marie,” Schakowsky said of her endorsement.
Privately, some Democrats question whether Gutierrez was settling a score with the powerful state party chairman Mike Madigan, a longtime ally of the Lipinski family. Gutierrez, who plans to retire at the end of this term, brought up in the news conference that during the last round of redistricting his district was redrawn to include a portion of Lipinski’s constituents.
“He jettisoned, 50-60,000 voters … all of a sudden I have the zoo. Brookfield Zoo … Just think about it. Pilsen, Little Village, Humboldt Park, Back of the Yards,” he said, referring to Chicago neighborhoods heavily populated by Latino residents. He then added the punchline: “And I got Brookfield Zoo, thanks to [Dan] Lipinski. But he didn’t do it so I have the zoo in my congressional district. He did it because he was running away from progressive Democrats.”
Gutierrez later told POLITICO his remarks had “nothing to do” with Madigan or the redistricting process the state Democratic party controls. Rather, he said, they were a commentary that Lipinski had exported a part of his district, around a trademark Chicago-area zoo, that was growing more liberal.
Gutierrez said moving a portion of Lipinski’s district into his own was a sign Lipinski and his clout-heavy Democratic backers knew he’d grown too conservative for his district. Lipinski insists he remains in line with his district, which includes Chicago and nearby suburbs, pointing to the endorsements of 30 mayors and village presidents just this week.
Wednesday’s move by Schakowsky and Gutierrez put them at odds with a more pragmatic faction of Chicago Democrats — old guard Democrats who remain loyal to Lipinski’s father, former Congressman Bill Lipinski, and would prefer to leave his son be.
Sure, they argue, Lipinski takes some conservative votes and may even be out of step with his district, but “he has a hell of a name,” said one Democratic operative.
In other words: why is the party spending precious resources to oust an incumbent from a safe Democratic seat? Especially when Democrats are busy trying to oust a Republican governor from office and nearby GOP congressmen from their seats?
Lipinski also has the support of another powerful local player: organized labor. In fact, the state’s largest public employee union, the AFL-CIO, just endorsed the congressman.
“The bottom line is that Dan Lipinski has a 92 percent lifetime voting record [with labor]. That’s gotta mean something,” said Jorge Ramirez, whose Chicago Federation of Labor is part of the AFL-CIO.
Ramirez said Gutierrez and Schakowsky may have their own reasons for not backing Lipinski but “what matters to me is that people are responsive to values of working men and women … I know our process is clear, if you support working men and women, we will support you.”
And that means providing the candidate with financial resources as well as boots on the ground for the March 20 primary.
Gutierrez counters that calling out Democrats like Lipinski gives progressives the upper hand.
“I think this strengthens the Democratic primary,” Gutierrez said. “It says we have a response in the age of Donald Trump.”