The growing generation gap in the House Democratic caucus widened this week after Rep. Joe Crowley’s loss in the Democratic primary in New York to 28-year-old activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Crowley, the House Democratic caucus chair, was expected to be a potential challenger to California’s Rep. Nancy Pelosi for the speakership should Democrats take back the House in November.
Pelosi has faced criticism from within her caucus for her stated desire to regain the speakership: A growing number of Democrats have said it’s time for her to step aside and allow a younger generation of leaders take control of the Democratic Party. Pelosi, who turned 78 earlier this year, has rejected those calls.
Responding to Crowley’s loss Tuesday, Pelosi dismissed a question about whether the Democratic leadership should better reflect a younger, more progressive generation.
“I am female. I am progressive. What’s your problem?” she shot back.
Ocasio-Cortez said Wednesday that it was too early to say if she’d back a Pelosi speakership. The candidate has not mentioned age as a reason not to back Pelosi, but some Democrats in Congress, like Rep. Linda Sanchez, a fellow Californian, have publicly said things like, “I do think it’s time to pass a torch to a new generation of leaders.”
Pelosi would be the oldest person to start a new speakership if Democrats take the majority and she can unite them behind her. According to the House of Representatives, the oldest person newly elected speaker was 72: Henry Rainey of Illinois, in 1933. Pelosi would tie Sam Rayburn, who was 78 when we has elected to his final term. Rayburn was 72 when he started his third stint as Speaker in 1955.
But what age is typical for those elected speaker of the House? Looking back at the ages of all 54 speakers when they were first elected, the average is about 50 years old.
Current Democratic leaders Reps. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Jim Clyburn of South Carolina are 79 and 77, respectively – far older than the average speaker of the House.
Even Crowley, who was seen by many as a younger option to Pelosi, is 56.
So there’s certainly some truth in the criticism that there’s a lack of youth at the top of the Democratic Party in the House. However, the advanced age of the Democrats jockeying for speaker is reflected in the historical trend: The age of the speaker is significantly higher in recent history than overall.
Since Samuel Rayburn became speaker of the House in 1940, the average age of the speaker is 62 – a full 12 years higher than the overall average.
Speakers who served prior to 1940 had an average age of 48.
Changes in quality of life and medical care have led to Americans living longer in general, which in some ways could account for the increase in the average age of House speakers. But the fact remains that Pelosi and the other top Democrats are far older than the usual age for a speaker.
Going to a younger option isn’t necessarily a home run for Democrats, however – if they can take back the House at all. The potential Democratic challengers to Pelosi are mostly much younger than the historical average. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, who challenged Pelosi’s leadership of the party in 2016 is 44, six years below the average age of a speaker. Prominent Pelosi critic Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts is 39, which would make him the youngest speaker elected since before the Civil War.
Other potential challengers are closer to the historical average, such as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, 47, and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, 47.
Perhaps a leading contender to unseat Pelosi is Sanchez, the current vice chair of the House Democratic caucus. And wouldn’t you know it … she’s 49, only one year off the average.
Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Sam Rayburn started his final term as Speaker at 78.