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Did Byron Donalds ‘win’ his bid for Speaker of the House?

by David Silverberg

Analysis, Commentary

On Jan.7, after 15 rounds of voting, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican congressman-elect from California’s 23rd District was finally named Speaker of the US House of Representatives. But Byron Donalds from Florida’s 19th Congressional District also ran.

Did he win his bid?

“Win” in Donalds’ case may not necessarily mean being elected Speaker. Everyone knew that Donalds was not going to be elected, especially Donalds, most likely.

But did the sudden and unexpected effort of this sophomore congressman-elect advance his political career—or will it hinder it?

A brief recap

To briefly—very briefly—recap what occurred in the race to be Speaker of the 118th Congress: Republicans won 222 seats in the 2022 midterm election to the Democrats’ 213.

The entire House elects its Speaker as its very first order of business upon reconvening in the new year after an election. Ordinarily, the majority party with more than half the votes is expected to elect the Speaker.

Once elected, the Speaker swears in the new members thereby officially establishing the new Congress and their legitimacy to make national decisions. (Until they’re sworn in, they have the title representatives-elect.) All legitimate authority to do anything in the chamber flows from the Speaker.

The Speaker (actually, the office but with the Speaker’s approval) determines who can take the floor, who presides, what bills proceed and sets the calendar. The Speaker counts the votes, appoints the members of the different committees, determines to which committees bills are referred and signs all bills that are passed in the House before they go to the Senate for further approval. The Speaker is also the next in line after the Vice President in the order of presidential succession. It’s also worth remembering that all tax bills must originate in the House, so in essence the Speaker has a major role in determining tax policy.

The Speaker is the linchpin of Congress, the authority from which all else flows. If there’s no Speaker, there’s no House. If there’s no House, there’s no government.

Going into the election, Kevin McCarthy was expected to get the 218 votes that would make him Speaker. Democrats put up their candidate, Rep.-elect Hakeem Jeffries (D-8-NY).

But McCarthy wasn’t dealing with a unified Republican caucus. In essence there was a Republican Party and there was a MAGA (Make America Great Again) Party, which refused to support him.

On the first ballot Jeffries received 212 votes; McCarthy received 203 and then a variety of other dissident Republicans received votes: Reps.-elect Andy Biggs (R-5-Ariz.) received 10, Jim Jordan (R-4-Ohio) 6, Jim Banks (R-3-Ind.) 1, and 1 for Lee Zeldin, a former representative who ran unsuccessfully for governor of New York.

Also on that first ballot Donalds received a single vote from Rep. Chip Roy (R-21-Texas).

Donalds was in the race for Speaker

The Donalds Role

Rep.-elect Lauren Boebert nominates Byron Donalds for Speaker on the fifth ballot. (Image: CSPAN)

McCarthy lost the first and second ballots. Donalds voted for him both times.

On the third ballot, with McCarthy making no progress, Donalds switched his vote to Jordan, joining all 20 hard-core MAGA dissidents. He was the only Republican to switch away from McCarthy.

“The reality is Rep. Kevin McCarthy doesn't have the votes,” he explained. “I committed my support to him publicly and for two votes on the House Floor. 218 is the number, and currently, no one is there.”

On the fourth ballot, however, Roy nominated Donalds for Speaker.

“Now, here we are, and for the first time in history, there have been two Black Americans placed into the nomination for Speaker of the House,” said Roy in his nominating speech. “However, we do not seek to judge people by the color of their skin but rather the content of their character.”

He concluded his speech saying, “Do you think that the American people want us to continue down the road of what we have been doing, with the leadership that is currently in place, has been in place? Do you think they want us to continue down that path? The argument that I would make is that they want a new face, new vision, new leadership, and I believe that face, vision, and new leadership is Byron Donalds. I am proud to put his name into nomination.”

The nomination put Donalds in the national—and international—spotlight. He was suddenly a viable, if unlikely, candidate for Speaker. He was the person with whom McCarthy had to negotiate.

On the fifth round, Donalds was nominated by Rep.-elect Lauren Boebert (R-3-Colo.) who called him “an amazing man of Florida, an amazing leader, someone who almost even took leadership here in our Republican Party and came very close in doing so.”

After praising Donalds, Boebert concluded with a dig at both McCarthy—and Donald Trump.

“So, let's work together. Let’s stop with the campaign smears and tactics to get people to turn against us, even having my favorite President call us and tell us we need to knock this off,” she said. “I think it actually needs to be reversed. The former President needs to tell Kevin McCarthy that, ‘Sir, you do not have the votes and it is time to withdraw.’”

Donalds’ candidacy lasted for eight rounds of balloting. He began losing votes as the dissidents fragmented. On the 12th ballot Donalds gave up his candidacy and returned to the McCarthy fold.

“The Speaker’s Office must work for We The People, and I believe the concessions we’ve secured achieve this,” Donalds stated in a tweet as he gave up his bid. Many of those concessions remain secret. It was not until Sunday that he revealed on Fox Business the major concession that won him over to McCarthy: a seat on the Republican Steering Committee, the body that determines which Republican representatives sit on which committees. It’s a powerful committee within the Republican caucus and a step up for Donalds within the Party (and the committee from which Donalds’ predecessor, Francis Rooney, was booted when he broke with Trump).

McCarthy was elected on the 15th ballot by 216 votes to Jeffries’ 212, when six die hard MAGAs voted “present.”

Analysis: Fallout and future

The racial debate

Donalds built his entire congressional career as an anomaly: “I’m everything the fake news media says doesn't exist: a [Donald Trump]-supporting, liberty-loving, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment black man,” as he put it in his kickoff campaign tweet, issued, ironically enough, on Jan. 6, 2020.

He’s a black representative in an 85 percent white, deeply conservative, heavily MAGA Republican district. He barely eked out a victory over nine other white Republicans in his 2020 primary bid.

He maintained his viability and won re-election in 2022 by taking extreme Trumpist, MAGA policy positions. This included support for voter suppression measures in Florida, Georgia and nationally, opposing masking and public health measures during the worst days of the COVID pandemic, attacking the teaching of critical race theory, voting to overturn the results of the 2020 election and following the most extreme MAGA line on all national issues. Most of all, he displayed extravagant and slavish loyalty to former President Donald Trump.

Congressional Democrats were not impressed by Donalds and the person who expressed the most disgust during the Speaker battle was Rep.-elect Cori Bush (D-1-Mo.), whose district includes the city of Ferguson.

“[For what it’s worth, Byron Donalds] is not a historic candidate for Speaker. He is a prop. Despite being Black, he supports a policy agenda intent on upholding and perpetuating white supremacy,” she tweeted at 2:56 pm on Jan. 4. “His name being in the mix is not progress—it’s pathetic.”

Four hours later, at 6:31 pm, Donalds replied in his own tweet. “[For what it’s worth] nobody asked [Cori Bush] her opinion on the matter. Before you judge my agenda, let's have a debate over the policies and the outcomes. Until then, don't be a crab in a barrel!”

Bush didn’t confine her criticism to tweets. She was vocal and emphatic.

“It seems as if they’re using him as a prop, as a tool, not because they think that he’s great, that he’s done all of these things to lead them,” Bush told the Huffington Post. “I don’t like that they’re using him that way. I don’t want them to use him that way. And I want him to understand: They’re only using you... don’t let them do that to you. Make them treat you with dignity and respect.”

She continued: “To hear Chip Roy stand up and say this is not about color ... it absolutely 100 percent 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.”

The Bush tweet and the resulting publicity clearly bothered Donalds through the night. At 9:39 am the next morning Donalds tweeted: “[Cori Bush], if you see a Black man rise, let the man rise even if you disagree with them. I’d be happy to sit down and debate our policies one on one whenever you’d like. As a Black man to a Black woman, I’d never do that to you. It’s a shame you did it to me.”

Bush sent a blistering rebuttal: “Working to overturn the 2020 election & embracing Trump MAGA fascism is not you rising, Byron. You’re being used. It helps you politically at the expense of our community. THAT’S what’s shameful,” she tweeted at 1:39 pm that afternoon. “It’s clear which party promotes white supremacist chaos and which works against it.”

In the end the question was moot because Donalds dropped his candidacy. But Bush expressed criticisms that have long festered about Donalds. When he stepped onto the national stage, the criticism went national too.

Congressional pathways and the road ahead

When a person is elected to the House of Representatives he or she has a choice of pathways: Will the congressperson concentrate on being an expert in a particular subject? Will he or she champion a particular cause? Will the representative concentrate on district work or constituent service? Will the seat serve to achieve higher office?

Among the many pathways a congressperson can walk there is one of climbing in the House party leadership. This was the path that Kevin McCarthy chose for himself.

It is also clearly the path that Byron Donalds intends to pursue. Now that he’s won his re-election bid and appears to have a safe seat, he’s in a position to try to move up.

His first reach for a leadership position was stomped down pretty hard when he challenged Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-21-NY) for the third leadership slot, head of the House Republican Conference, in November. Then, he lost to Stefanik, 144 to 44.

There’s no denying that Donalds’ bid for Speaker brought him a much higher profile nationally and within the caucus. Instead of an obscure freshman from an obscure corner of Florida, he is now a significant player in the MAGA movement and among congressional Republicans.

Gaining a seat on the Steering Committee was a considerable step up. He may not be Speaker or head of the conference but by sitting on the Committee he’s in a position to dispense favors, make connections and collect debts as other Republicans come to him seeking their desired committee assignments. He’s not a kingmaker but he’s on the Privy Council.

His speakership bid also gives him a larger megaphone in the public forum. He’ll be more sought after as a talking head. He’ll get more prestigious interviews on more media platforms including in the mainstream media he purports to despise. He’ll reach more people, especially among the MAGA faithful.

This in turn will build the Byron Donalds “brand.” And what is that brand? It is, as it has been since 2020 and before, that of a “Donald Trump-supporting, liberty-loving, pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment black man.”

As Cori Bush pointed out, this also serves as a “prop” for the MAGA movement to deflect charges of racism. What Bush failed to recognize or point out is that Donalds isn’t a mere prop being used, he’s a willing prop, a prop that goes out of its way to be on stage and serve as the black face of a movement that is otherwise characterized by “hatred, prejudice and rage,” to use Donald Trump’s own words.

(It is also worth noting that despite Donalds’ slavish adoration and praise of Trump, Trump himself has done Donalds no favors: he didn’t endorse Donalds when he really needed it in his 2020 primary run; despite a general endorsement after the primary, he didn’t mention Donalds at all when he campaigned in Fort Myers during the general election campaign in October 2020, when Donalds was diagnosed with COVID and couldn’t be on stage; he endorsed Stefanik against Donalds during his conference leadership run; and he didn’t endorse Donalds during his speakership bid, choosing McCarthy instead. As always with Trump, loyalty is strictly a one-way street.)

The perils of prominence

Rising in prominence as Donalds is doing brings with it risks. The higher a person rises, the bigger a target he or she becomes.

Donalds may be gaining in stature among MAGAs, the Republican leadership and in the media but Democrats and especially black politicians like those in the Congressional Black Caucus aren’t buying his act. This was in evidence when he was savaged by MSNBC TV host Joy Reid on her show, “The Reid Out,” on Jan. 10. Reid was visibly infuriated by Donalds’ positions and his answers to her questions.

In days to come, and as the 118th Congress proceeds, Donalds’ extreme Trumpist MAGAism is going to come in for greater scrutiny, criticism and challenge from all quarters, not just black politicians and journalists.

It was very interesting that in his reply to Bush, Donalds saw his personal rise as divorced from the policies he espouses. In essence Donalds took the position that his race shouldn’t matter when he pursues his ambition but that it should matter in shielding him from criticism.

His policy positions seem secondary in his mind. That was an argument that Bush simply didn’t buy and not many other Americans—black or white—are likely to buy either.

It’s as though Donalds can’t connect the public policy positions he’s taking with their impacts on the ground. They’re just things he feels he has to say to get elected, not directions and priorities for the nation.

Donalds has chosen to surf a wave of “hatred, prejudice and rage” to higher office, betting that he has the skill and luck to navigate its water without falling—or being drowned.

Also, Donalds has plenty of other skeletons in his closet that haven’t seen the light of day yet and the higher he goes, the more fame and power he accrues and the more extreme positions he takes, the more likely they are to come tumbling out. That’s what happened with Herschel Walker in his bid for a Senate seat in Georgia—and his Republican promoters are unlikely to want to repeat that experience.

Maybe Donalds will succeed in riding the MAGA wave to the shore of his choosing. Then again, maybe not.

The forgotten Southwest—Florida

Speaking of waves and shores, there are the forgotten needs of the coast of Southwest Florida and the 19th Congressional District that Donalds ostensibly represents.

Despite its Herculean efforts at recovery, Southwest Florida remains devastated after Hurricane Ian. People are homeless and businesses are desperate. Southwest Florida’s congressional representative should be working non-stop, on steroids, in overdrive, with afterburners to get it every federal penny and all assistance available both for communities and individual constituents.

learly, however, that is not Donalds’ priority amidst his efforts to climb the greasy pole of Republican leadership, although to be fair, the current Congress could not do anything until a Speaker was elected. But before that he could have made personal efforts like urging on and working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies to expedite aid and build helpful coalitions. Instead he just posted links to FEMA websites for constituents who had no Internet.

onalds’ record to date is not encouraging for his district. He, along with Southwest Florida’s two other congressmen, Reps. Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) and Mario Diaz Balart (R-26-Fla.), voted against the end of year $1.7 trillion spending bill that included $25 billion in disaster relief for communities throughout the country. Further, his rhetorical focus remains fixated on a different southwest—in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, distant from Florida’s Gulf shore and irrelevant to its needs.

Along with the rest of the MAGA-led Republican caucus he is vowing to further cut federal spending at the very moment the region needs it most. The local prospects for federal aid are dim. This Congress may not allow spending earmarks, which could have been directed to Southwest Florida’s damaged communities—and which Donalds was unlikely to pursue anyhow.

On top of this, members of the Republican caucus are threatening to cut or eliminate Social Security and Medicare, on which tens of thousands of Southwest Floridians are vitally dependent.

What is gathering is a potential perfect storm of cuts to federal aid, cuts to senior incomes, cuts to healthcare, the potential for a government shutdown that would close all federal activities and on top of all that a refusal to raise the debt ceiling that could send the country into default and the entire world into economic collapse. Southwest Florida is facing a financial Hurricane Ian as bad as the climatic one and the source of the storm is Capitol Hill.

The 19th Congressional District has always been a steppingstone, a secondary priority to Donalds. The issue to watch and the question to ask is: will Donalds remember his district and do anything at all to relieve its suffering in the session ahead? Will his adherence to MAGA vengeance and his Party ambitions take precedence over the needs of the damaged people and businesses of his district? Donalds will answer this by his actions in the days ahead.

Southwest Florida gained nothing from Donalds’ Speaker struggle. It’s even more obscure, neglected and ignored than before and is likely to continue that way.

A star?

Did Donalds “win” his bid for the speakership? From a narrow personal standpoint, the answer has to be “yes,” for all the reasons enumerated above. He’s more prominent and famous than previously and his prospects for rising in the Republican leadership are better than before.

It’s worth remembering, though, that in politics fame can be fleeting and victory ephemeral.

What’s more, Donalds’ inescapable contradictions between his race and his politics are in higher relief now. He can only rise by promoting policies the majority of his fellow black politicians and black journalists find dangerous and repulsive. He’s inseparable from a MAGA movement of hatred, prejudice and rage that tolerates him as a prop but could turn on him at any time for any reason. He idolizes an indifferent god in Donald Trump who gives no love in return. And the democratic forces trying to hold back MAGA autocracy now recognize him as a threat and will treat him accordingly.

Donalds is also facing the apocalypse of the Republican presidential nominating process when he will have to unambiguously declare his support for one of the potential nominees. In Florida, that could be either Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) or former President Donald Trump. Whatever his choice, he will offend the person he doesn’t endorse and that person’s followers. The only way out is if one of them drops out or drops dead.

The path of politics has never been easy and it gets more difficult and demanding the higher the climb, as Donalds is discovering. Many politicians aspire to the summits of their ambition but only a handful reach the peaks they seek.

During his run against Stefanik, Donalds put together a promotional video that presented him as a rising star in the Republican Party.

After the end of the 15th ballot for Speaker, is Donalds a rising star? Perhaps the best way of putting it is this: his star is a bit higher above the horizon; it glows a bit brighter than before; but whether it’s rising with the dawn or falling with the dusk is still to be determined.

Special to Big Mouth Media from The Paradise Progressive. Originally published on January 11, 2023.

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