Joe Morelle is not my cup of tea, but he might be the freshman House Democrat America should be watching.
In a wave of 59 new Democrats dominated in the media by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, it may be an overlooked middle-aged white guy from upstate NewYork who ends up having the greatest influence.
And that is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your political philosophy.
If you like boilerplate progressivism of the last 20 years, do the happy dance.
If you’re a conservative, like me, this guy is a headache.
But he could end up being a big-deal headache.
That’s because being a successful member of the House isn’t about being on TV. Sure, being in Congress is a bully pulpit, and brings with it – for the most entertaining or articulate– media access and prominence, and the ability to try to sway large numbers of Americans to your side.
But mostly, Congress is about legislating. About writing a bill and getting it passed and signed into law.
That’s an easy process to describe, but a very difficult one to actually execute. To such an extent that many members of the House or Representatives never actually originateany legislation of genuine significance.
Forming the relationships, understanding the procedures, building the coalitions, making the deals, knowing exactly when to do what -- for parliamentary and personal reasons --is a complex skill that can take years to learn.
There is also, in the dynamic of a large room filled with giant egos, a lot of schmoozing that has to be done, with psyches to be stroked and toes not to be stepped on.
Which gets back to Joe Morelle.
A review of his resume, contrasted with the resumes of his fellow Democrat freshmen, shows that – when it comes to having experience as a high-stakes legislator – he is in a classall his own.
If you include Morelle – who took office last November – there are 60 first-year Democrats in the House of Representatives. Of those, 14 have legislative experience, mostly intheir various state legislatures. Of those, 11 were junior members of their state legislatures, with an average of 4.5 years of service.
The three remaining prior state legislators include Ed Case, who was in the Hawaii legislature for 18 years; Jeff VanDrew, who spent 16 years in the New Jersey Senate and Assembly;and Steven Horsford, with just eight years in the Nevada Senate, but four of those as majority leader.
That’s pretty good experience.
But it’s nothing compared to Joe Morelle, who spent 27 years in the New York state Assembly, including five years as its majority leader. Also to his potential benefit is thefact that New York’s government is about as fraught with intrigue and plot twists as any government on earth. New York is not entry-level politics. Further, Morelle worked in a caucus dominated by autocratic speakers who had to be handled with kid gloves.
Kind of like Nancy Pelosi.
The upshot is that Morelle’s skillset seems likely to give him a big advantage over his peers. He already knows how to swim with sharks. That ought to allow him to emerge as aleader among the newcomers, and to quickly integrate himself into the structure of personalities and procedures that make the Democrat caucus in the House go around.
He won’t end up on the Sunday talk shows, but he could get his fingerprints on the things that truly matter, by getting close to leadership and by actually shaping legislation.
What does that mean for his district?
His predecessor – Louise Slaughter – ran the Rules Committee and was cheek-by-jowl with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and yet her tenure saw her district decline as much as any regionhas since ghost-town days. Morelle shares her love for promoting liberalism, but he also understands the pork-barrel reality that if you’re not bringing something home you’re not doing your job.
And it’s always better to have a connected congressman than an unconnected congressman.
“Joe is a strong inside player,” a former Republican New York legislator said of Morelle.
And it is likely his inside game began when he started campaigning, and it is likely it will pay off.
So, he’s not the one getting the national headlines. But it’s quite possible one of the most significant new Democrat members of the House of Representatives is Joe Morelle.