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Historic House speaker showdown highlighted matters of race and representation

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., receives the gavel from House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., after McCarthy was elected speaker in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol early Saturday morning.
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Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., receives the gavel from House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., after McCarthy was elected speaker in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol early Saturday morning.

As protracted voting for speaker of the House ground Congress to a standstill for multiple days this week, race and history permeated debate over who can best reflect the will of the American electorate on the Hill. Democrats and Republicans alike centered Black lawmakers as officials discussed the importance of representation.

In speeches on the floor throughout the week, Democrats — for whom Black voters are a core part of the party's base — highlighted the historic significance of New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries as the first Black person to lead a congressional caucus.

"We are prepared to nominate a leader who will open the door to the new generation of leadership," said caucus chair Pete Aguilar of California on the first day of voting. "A Latino is nominating for leader of this chamber a Black man for the first time in our history."

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans highlighted their own history as the party of President Lincoln and efforts toward increasing diversity. Though the caucus struggled to unite behind California Rep. Kevin McCarthy in multiple votes and for nearly a week, he was ultimately elected House speaker early Saturday on the 15th round of voting.

Earlier in the week, the deadlock saw Byron Donalds, a Black representative from Florida, emerge as a potential spoiler candidate.

Donalds was nominated by Chip Roy, a Texas Republican who voted for the Floridian in the first ballot.

Though Roy began his nomination by noting how Donalds is a "dear friend" and "solid conservative," he quickly moved to center race: "for the first time in history, there have been two Black Americans placed into nomination for speaker of the House."

"However, we do not seek to judge people by the color of their skin, but rather, the content of their character," he continued, invoking the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., speaks to the media on Wednesday during House speaker elections outside the U.S. Capitol.
Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images
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Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., speaks to the media on Wednesday during House speaker elections outside the U.S. Capitol.

The idea of authenticity and who best represents diverse voters' interests is often a fraught political debate.

According to LegiStorm, a congressionally-focused research organization, in the 118th Congress, 70.9% of members identify as white, 12.6% as Black, 10.5% as Latino, 4.1%, as Asian American /Pacific Islander, 0.9% as having ancestry from the Middle East and 0.9% as Indigenous American.

"I think what has been interesting over the course of this debate is how both the Democrats and the Republicans have invoked descriptive representation," said Professor Andra Gillespie, a political science professor and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Race and Difference at Emory University. "When the Republicans have invoked it, they are touting the gains that they have made in descriptive representation which are real ... But I think it's obvious if you just look at the makeup of the room and you look at who is standing up on each side that one side certainly has more descriptive diversity than the other."

"I think there is some question about nominating Byron Donalds, a second term congressman, highlighting that this was all symbolic to begin with," Gillespie continued. "Donalds isn't going to be speaker and that was never going to be the case."

According to the Pew Research Center, "only about one-in-ten Black adults identify with or lean toward the Republican Party. And in a Pew Research Center survey in October, only 4% of Black registered voters said they would vote for the Republican candidate for the U.S. House seat in their district, while 69% said they would back the Democratic candidate."

Amid the House speaker debates this week, Missouri Democrat Cori Bush pushed back on the idea of Donalds as a historic candidate for speaker. His nomination "is not progress" she tweeted. "He is a prop."

Bush later explained that she questioned the earnestness of Roy's nomination and backing from far-right Republicans.

"[Donalds] was not someone that they have been promoting for the last two years," she said. "To hear Chip Roy stand up and say this is not about color... it absolutely 100% is because if you were nominating him on his worth and merit, I think none of us would have been surprised because we would have seen him do leadership things."

But Donalds and his Republican proponents insist on the opposite.

"Before you judge my agenda, let's have a debate over the policies and the outcomes," he responded in a tweet of his own.

Regardless of the motivation underlying Donalds' nomination, his candidacy did little more than hamstring McCarthy's bid. For example, the Florida representative only received 20 votes in the fourth ballot after Roy's nomination, far short of the support necessary to clinch the speakership.

The Republican party has long claimed they are best aligned with the values of Black voters. One Black lawmaker in the GOP underscored the same in his speech on the floor.

John James, a Republican representative-elect from Michigan tapped to nominate Kevin McCarthy in the 7th round of voting, began his speech by saying 1856 was the last time it took Congress this many votes to choose a speaker.

"The issues today are over a few rules and personalities," he told the chamber. "While the issues at that time were about slavery and whether the value of a man who looks like me was 60% or 100% of a human being."

James continued by emphasizing the historic nature of his own presence on the floor.

"Our nation has made a lot of progress. That includes families like mine," he said. "My family has gone from slave to right here since 1856."

Given it was unlikely that Rep. Donalds would ever surpass McCarthy in the vote, Professor Gillespie suggests that James' nomination was, in part, a strategic move from the GOP.

"This is not somebody who has been hostile towards advancing the interests of candidates of color," she added. "I think what the Republicans were hoping is that John James is a good authority. As another African-American candidate, it would be more powerful for him to point that out as opposed to having somebody else do it."

As his speech continued, James pivoted to describe how McCarthy has helped his party make history, better reflecting the mosaic identity of the American public.

"The first time we met was in his office under the watchful gaze of a Frederick Douglass painting," he reflected. "He told me in that office on the eve of the 2019 State of the Union address, there's nothing that could be said or done during that address that embarrassed him more than the fact that when the Democrat side stood up, they would look more like the United States of America than we did."

James went on to say that McCarthy had worked hard to include "more people with diverse perspectives from different lived experiences" in the GOP. He talked about how McCarthy helped increase Republicans' hold in the House and did so by increasing the number of minorities, women and veterans in their ranks.

In his victory speech early Saturday morning, McCarthy once again spoke of Lincoln as an inspiration. He also spoke about the painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware that hangs in the Capitol.

Noting that in the boat with Washington is a diverse group of people, including one Black figure, McCarthy called on lawmakers to "let everybody in the same boat."

"If we row at the same cadence together, there's no obstacle this body can't overcome," he concluded.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juma Sei
Juma Sei is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow at NPR. He is a Sierra Leonean-American from Portland, Oregon, and a 2022 graduate of Yale College.