AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Nancy Pelosi was the first woman to hold the title speaker of the House. And it's a title she wants to hold again. But not everyone in her caucus is convinced that the 78-year-old Pelosi is the right woman or person for the job. The last time she was elected speaker, George W. Bush was president. The Great Recession had not yet happened. And the Tea Party - that was years away still.
In a few minutes, we're going to hear from someone who has challenged Pelosi for leadership in the past. But first we're going to talk to someone who does think Nancy Pelosi should lead the Democrats when they take over the House in January, Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. She joins me now from her home in Evanston. Welcome.
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Thank you so much.
CHANG: So what makes you think Nancy Pelosi is still the right leader for the party?
SCHAKOWSKY: I think Nancy Pelosi is really the biggest asset that the Democratic House Caucus has right now. Many people think that she was the best or one of the best speakers ever. We would not have the Affordable Care Act at all if it weren't for Nancy Pelosi because she went to the White House and told the fellows there that, no, they were not going to scrap it or go small. She would get the votes. And that's Nancy Pelosi.
CHANG: But a lot of members in your caucus say it's time for new blood. I mean, this midterm election did show there was an appetite for fresh, new political voices in the Democratic Party. Like, we saw the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of Ayanna Pressley, of Ilhan Omar. These are all very new political voices. Why not have fresh leadership?
SCHAKOWSKY: Oh, we are going to see a rise of particularly the women that you mentioned. There's going to be a lot of places for them to exert their leadership and their voices to be heard. But in this really chaotic time with the White House and the things that the president is doing, we want someone that has the experience, the know-how, a steady hand, has been in the room where it happens before. And I think Nancy Pelosi is the - really the only one that knows the scene and will be able to navigate these very rough waters.
CHANG: Do you think her critics are maybe over-obsessed about her age?
SCHAKOWSKY: You know, it's interesting because other leaders are at least as old as she is and some older, but we don't hear about that, so...
CHANG: Are you talking about male leaders, perhaps (laughter)?
SCHAKOWSKY: That's - that would be exactly right. So I think women are subjected to that kind of scrutiny and criticism. But this is the Republican talking point. They spent over a hundred million dollars trying to trash her, and yet her rating is higher than Donald Trump, higher than the speaker - the current speaker of the House. And Nancy Pelosi focuses on what really needs to be done and really hasn't let that pull her aside and distract her.
CHANG: Though, you know, it is fair to argue that younger members need to be cultivated; they need to be mentored to take over eventually, and that process takes time. Is your caucus preparing for a future transfer of leadership?
SCHAKOWSKY: You know, we have a number of younger leaders who are heads of committees. We're going to put voices on television, as Nancy Pelosi has, give them opportunities to be leaders on the floor of the House, leading on legislative initiatives. She has never held anyone back. In fact, I would say Nancy Pelosi has made as part of her mission making sure that young - younger voices are heard, particularly women's voices. And we're going to have so many new women in the Congress.
CHANG: Well, she hasn't held anyone back as long as they don't want to be speaker as well, right?
SCHAKOWSKY: We have not heard any name emerge. I don't think there is going to be a name that emerges because Nancy Pelosi has the votes in our caucus.
CHANG: Democrat Jan Schakowsky represents the 9th Congressional District of Illinois. Thank you very much.
SCHAKOWSKY: My pleasure.
CHANG: Let's turn now to Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan. Congressman Ryan challenged Nancy Pelosi for House Democratic leader two years ago. And so far, he has not ruled out challenging her to be speaker of the House next year. Congressman Tim Ryan joins us now. Welcome.
TIM RYAN: Great to be with you.
CHANG: All right, so of course I'm going to have to ask. Are you going to challenge Nancy Pelosi again to become the next Democratic leader in the House?
RYAN: You know, I don't have any intention of doing that. My goal really is, how do we protect this majority that we have over the long term? We've got some great candidates. And, you know, I want to make sure they're getting their voice heard in this whole re-elect. And no one's really asked them what they thought about House leadership, so I think it's a good idea we put the brakes on a little bit, say, hey, these people who are winning in these tough districts - they should have a say.
CHANG: Are you hearing about any possible challenges to Pelosi?
RYAN: There are people talking about it right now, and they're from different - the caucuses around in the Democratic Caucus - the Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, Women's Caucus. There are people talking about it right now, having conversations. And so it's not a fait accompli just yet.
And it's important that we have these discussions 'cause again, it's about, how do we sustain this majority and then move forward? And if we're asking members, many of them who have said during their campaign that they're not going to vote for Nancy Pelosi - 15 or 20 of them - if the first thing we ask them to do is to vote for her, they're going to be in a lot of trouble in their re-election. And I just don't think that's fair to them.
CHANG: OK, so whether you or anyone else does end up challenging her for speaker of the House, you have made it clear in the past that you have reservations about her continuing on as Democratic leader. Tell me why.
RYAN: Well, I just think, you know, it's to the point in the Democratic Party where we are not connecting with the workers of the country. I mean, our national brand is not very good right now.
CHANG: And that's Pelosi's fault.
RYAN: Well, I mean, her negatives are at 55 percent. I mean, in many areas of the country, they're worse than Donald Trump. We're not connecting to the backbone of our party, and it's because our national brand isn't very good.
CHANG: When you talk about leaders who've been around for a long time, I mean, I can point to a lot of men in Congress who've been in party leadership just as long as Nancy Pelosi. These are men who don't seem to get the same level of criticism Pelosi gets about seniority or age, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for example. Do you think gender is a factor here?
RYAN: It's not a factor for me. This is about winning. This is about implementing a progressive agenda. And...
CHANG: You don't think Pelosi is progressive enough.
RYAN: No, I didn't say that. My point is that I think it's going to be really hard if we put these candidates in a position where they have to vote for her when they've made a promise that they were not going to vote for her and that's their first vote is to vote for her and they won their election because they were a change candidate and they go back on that. That is not a good position to put people in.
CHANG: Do you think that there are costs to having this conversation or, some might say, this family feud over this? Do you think that could be disruptive just as Democrats are retaking the House?
RYAN: No, I think that's overblown. I mean, this is going to be over in just a few weeks. I mean, I just don't think that that's a legitimate argument. We have to readjust our sails if the winds are blowing in a different direction. I know it's an uncomfortable conversation for us to have, but it's one we have to have.
CHANG: So it sounds like Pelosi will not be able to rely on your vote.
RYAN: No, no, I will not be voting for her, no.
CHANG: Congressman Tim Ryan, thank you very much.
RYAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.