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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Froma Harrop: Democrats, listen to Bustos and keep Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi will probably return as speaker of the House and should. A proven master at running the legislature, she’s plug-and-play ready and able to steer Democrats through these chaotic times.

That Pelosi is a woman is not why she should be speaker. That she is relatively old, at 78, is not why she should not be speaker. On the dubious assumption that most voters want leaders matching their gender, age, ethnicity and race, many Democrats do their party harm by appealing to this or that identity tag in the so-called base.

Here’s an idea: Expand the base. How about rural and Rust Belt whites, whom so many Democrats have written off even though they voted Democratic not all that long ago?

Democrats have shown that they can win the House. But they will have a hard time getting a Senate majority without attracting more of these white voters.

And they can if they listen to Cheri Bustos. She’s headed for a fourth term serving an Illinois congressional district sprawling over 14 counties. In 2016, her district voted for Donald Trump but re-elected her by over 20 points.

Bustos interviewed Democratic survivors in what is now called Trump country and shared their views in a paper, “Hope from the Heartland: How Democrats Can Better Serve the Midwest by Bringing Rural, Working Class Wisdom to Washington.” “Listen to us” is the theme.

Listen to former Ohio state Rep. Nick Barborak: “It’s not that people voted for Trump, but they voted against the Democrats. We’re (seen as) the party of big cities and social issues.”

And Illinois state Sen. Andy Manar: “Rural voters feel the Democratic Party used to represent working-class issues. We seem focused on things manifested in identity politics that don’t apply to rural.”

And Minnesota state Rep. Paul Marquart: “We’ve become the party of protest, and rural people say, ‘What about us? I’m working 40 hours a week at $10 an hour, and Democrats don’t care.’”

It must take a lot for people swimming in economic anxiety to vote for the party that’s trying to take away their health care, opposes raising the minimum wage and threatens Social Security and Medicare.

Do racial resentments play a part? They probably do. But that doesn’t explain why 206 counties that voted for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012 switched to Trump in 2016. Iowa had the most Obama-Trump counties. Obama won by focusing on the middle class.

It’s notable that eight new members of Congress are African-Americans elected in majority-white districts. And they ran in states such as Georgia, Texas, Minnesota and Illinois.

Here is one of Bustos’ most interesting findings: The Democrats she talked to don’t see their party’s positions on hot issues – abortion, guns, religion – as their biggest challenge. Rather, it’s the voters’ impression that social issues take “priority to the exclusion of economic issues.”

Democrats got smart in the recent election. Trump threw out one immigrant-themed taunt after another, and Democrats ignored him. They talked about health care and won back a slew of congressional and statehouse seats that had drifted away in recent years. And they flipped governorships in seven states, including Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan and Illinois.

Bustos offers a final bit of advice for Democrats: Focus on “new policy solutions in infrastructure, education and small business that will elevate the economic fortunes of all voters.” All voters, get it?

No one lasts forever, Nancy Pelosi included. But she is the strongest bridge to a new Democratic leadership representing all corners of America.

So let Pelosi be speaker. Many Democrats can be talker. Bustos should be one of them. She has interesting things to say.

Froma Harrop can be reached at

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