Rep. Alcee Hastings was 84 years old and battling pancreatic cancer. He was nearing his third decade in Congress. But he just couldn’t quit his House seat.
So he ran again last November and won his South Florida-based district, only to die in April. His death created a vacancy that made House Democrats’ already slim majority even smaller — and now his seat will remain vacant until January, thanks to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who aimed to keep the solidly Democratic seat unoccupied for as long as possible by scheduling the special election nine months after Hastings’ death.
The entire episode has brought into sharp focus an awkward conversation that Democrats have been having for a while: at a time of deep polarization and narrow congressional majorities, do older or infirm members have a responsibility to step down to ensure the party has enough votes to advance its agenda?
“The older generation does not want to pass the baton. You don’t have to die in your seat. Pass the baton on,” said Florida state Sen. Shevrin Jones, a 37-year-old Democrat who lives in Hastings’ district.
“I want to make sure that I’m not stepping into ageism, but we have a bench problem,” he said. “We have so many good young elected officials, but they’re on the bench.”
DeSantis’ scheduling move led to howls of protest in the majority-Black district because its residents will go without elected representation for so long. But privately there’s a growing realization among Florida Democrats that Hastings’ refusal to leave office helped enable the outcome.
Both parties have their share of elderly members (Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley is considering running again next year for a term that would end when he is 93). But Democrats have been grappling with a noticeable generational divide within their ranks for some time — President Joe Biden and top Democratic congressional leaders are all well over 70. Ten of the 12 House members over the age of 80 are Democrats.
The issue has taken on an increased urgency given the party’s tenuous hold on Congress. The loss of just one Democrat would tip the balance of power in the Senate, which has heightened scrutiny of its oldest member, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who has faced recent questions about her fitness for office. She turned 88 on Tuesday. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy — now 81 and running for reelection to his ninth term — had a brief hospital scare in January that alarmed activists.
“It was one of the few wake-up calls: Holy s—, we are one stroke or car wreck or Me Too scandal from not having a Senate majority,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy for the liberal think tank Data for Progress. “It is the thinnest majority you can have.”
Democrats have a slightly larger margin in the House, but that advantage has been whittled down in recent months by Hastings’ death and other departures.
That’s led to mounting frustration with the old guard, as well as a feeling of dread that the party is just a heartbeat away from losing control of at least one chamber of Congress.
Progressive activists like NoiseCat are increasingly concerned that issues important to Generation Z and millennial voters — such as climate change, voting rights and criminal justice reform — are stalled in the hidebound Senate, where the lack of action could depress turnout next year and flip control of one or both chambers of Congress.
“There’s a generation of young progressives energized by politics, and a big question in front of the Democratic Party in terms of its ability to channel that energy is whether or not they can deliver on issues that matter to young people,” NoiseCat said.
Worries about the make-up of the U.S. Supreme Court — where the September death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, enabled President Donald Trump to replace her with conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, 49 — are also coloring the debate.
Justice Stephen Breyer, 82 and one of the high court’s three liberal justices, faces an organized effort to pressure him to retire and make way for a replacement.
Brian Fallon, a top Democratic operative and executive director of the advocacy group Demand Justice, said Breyer’s arguments for staying on the court resemble those made by Ginsburg and older politicians like Leahy, who point out that they’re still doing a good job and remain the best choices for their positions.
“The big divide in the Democratic Party is as much ideological as it is generational,” Fallon said, adding that it’s not just about policy.
“It applies to how politics is conducted, beyond taxes and crime and the war on drugs,” he said. “There’s no more patience for the idea that the Republicans are going to negotiate in good faith.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 31-year-old progressive who won her New York seat in 2018 by defeating a longtime Democratic incumbent, reminded her Twitter followers earlier this month that the 2009 death of 77-year-old Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy stymied President Barack Obama’s agenda.
“During the Obama admin, folks thought we’d have a 60 Dem majority for a while. It lasted 4 months,” she tweeted. “Dems are burning precious time & impact negotiating w/GOP who won’t even vote for a Jan 6 commission. [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell’s plan is to run out the clock. It’s a hustle. We need to move now.”
Waleed Shahid, a Democratic strategist and spokesperson for the group Justice Democrats, said he wants the 78-year-old president, 70-year-old Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, 70, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, 81, to realize that time is ticking for everyone.
“I don’t inherently have a problem with a politician’s age,” Shahid said. “The issue is that the Democratic Party’s narrow control of the federal government could be upended by illness or death at any moment. That fact should be giving Biden, Schumer, and Pelosi much more urgency to get a broad agenda through Congress as quickly as possible.”
That would require eliminating the filibuster, though, and senators like Feinstein are cool to the idea. In 2018, then-state Sen. Kevin de León, 54, unsuccessfully challenged her from the left in California, saying it was time for a change. But the powerful senator still managed to hold on to win a fifth term.
“There is always going to be an expiration date on the value of seniority,” de León, now a Los Angeles City Council member, told POLITICO. “Instead of holding power hostage to our very last days, let’s use every ounce of it to help the next generation cut a path to strong leadership both within our party, and in the halls of power.”
In Florida, Democrat Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, 42, had the same idea when she unsuccessfully challenged Hastings in 2018 and 2020.
Cherfilus-McCormick said she respected Hastings, a beloved figure in the Black community who was first elected to Congress in 1992. But she challenged him because she said he wasn’t delivering for the district and “we can’t sacrifice the community based on the fact that someone’s an icon.”
With Hastings’ death, Cherfilus-McCormick is now running in what promises to be a crowded primary to succeed him — a stark contrast to her two previous solo bids against Hastings.
“They’re jumping in because they believe it’s an opportunity of a lifetime, because the assumption is that you stay there until you pass. That’s something we have to deal with and confront head on,” she said. “What we have to deal with as a party is taking succession-planning seriously.”
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