The case for some progressive primary challenges is obvious.
Those are the races where an incumbent Democrat in a safe seat has racked up a conservative voting record out of step with their constituents, used their seat for self-enrichment, or otherwise lost touch with their district.
The theory behind challenging Rep. Peter DeFazio, 72, who has, since 1987, represented a seat in rural Oregon that now leans just barely Democratic, is more complex.
DeFazio, who now serves as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and longtime supporter of, among other progressive touchstones, “Medicare for All,” single-payer health care.
But Doyle Canning, a 39-year-old community organizer and attorney who has announced a primary challenge against DeFazio, insists that the veteran congressman is past his expiration date.
Canning, who hails from the liberal college town of Eugene, has some standard policy differences with DeFazio. Unlike the incumbent congressman in Oregon’s 4th Congressional District, she supports a ban on military-style “assault” rifles. She is also refusing to accept contributions from corporate political action committees, something DeFazio receives in abundance.
Her hardest-hitting critique, however, is that as a committee chair, DeFazio has been milquetoast in his dealings with, and oversight of, the Trump administration.
“This race is about the future ― of our district, of the country and of the Democratic Party,” Canning told HuffPost. “And we need leadership that is willing to take a stand against the corruption of the Trump administration.”
DeFazio’s Transportation Committee is charged with oversight of federal government buildings, including the building that houses the Trump International Hotel in Washington; airplane manufacturers and the Federal Aviation Administration; and the conduct of the Secretary of Transportation.
At one point or another in the past year, DeFazio has faced accusations of falling short in each of those three areas.
DeFazio provided a lengthy statement defending his committee’s oversight; HuffPost also spoke to committee staff about their work.
“I am running aggressive investigations to get answers about any number of Trump administration actions that fall within my Committee’s jurisdiction,” he said.
Following a second major Boeing plane crash in March, which killed over 150 people, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded three of the manufacturer’s commercial airliners.
The tragic crash prompted major questions about why the FAA, under Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s supervision, had failed to prevent the crashes. At the time, DeFazio suggested he would stop at nothing to obtain relevant communications about the scandal from both Boeing and the FAA.
By early May, it emerged that Boeing knew about the absence of a warning light in one of the deadly planes, but delayed informing authorities, because it considered the light an optional feature available to customers paying a higher premium.
But later that month, at a hearing on the crashes with Trump’s acting head of the FAA, DeFazio admitted that he still didn’t have the documents and did nothing to indicate he plans to use his subpoena power to get them. “I’m hoping that they will provide the documents we have requested voluntarily and in the not-too-distant future,” he said.
In a May essay, Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, which monitors executive branch corruption, accused DeFazio of taking a softer line than Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who chairs the subcommittee on aviation and space.
“We have had no serious inquiry into the collapse of government oversight of planes,” Hauser told HuffPost.
Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg is due to testify before DeFazio’s committee on Oct. 30 ― more than seven months after the plane crash that prompted the FAA to ground planes.
Matt Stoller, author of the forthcoming book “Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy,” characterized DeFazio’s chairmanship unfavorably when compared to, among other colleagues, Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline’s chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel.
“Cicilline is doing a great job investigating big tech. DeFazio needs to show that same urgency in investigating Boeing,” said Stoller, a former congressional aide, who now serves as a fellow at the antitrust-focused Open Markets Institute. “Being the party of the people means carrying on the legacy of [former California Rep.] Henry Waxman and [former Arkansas Rep.] Wright Patman, people who knew how to uncover the secrets powerful people don’t want the public to know.”
Members of DeFazio’s committee staff told HuffPost that they are now sifting through hundreds of thousands of documents that they have obtained since May from both Boeing and the FAA. To call Muilenburg, the Boeing CEO, before the committee prior to obtaining those documents would waste the opportunity to grill him in a more informed way, they argued.
They also said that forcing disclosure of documents through subpoenas could have delayed the process further by tying the committee up in court with legal challenges.
Hauser did not buy those arguments. He maintains that there is no way to know whether documents shared voluntarily are as definitive as those that Boeing and the FAA would reveal if they had no choice. And he noted that the committee could have called Muilenburg in early on, when the political urgency was greatest, then recalled him a second time once the committee had assembled more documents.
“Boeing is definitely happy with Chairman DeFazio’s oversight,” Hauser said. “The question is whether Chairman DeFazio is happy about that.”
In his statement to HuffPost, DeFazio said that he was prioritizing substance over style. He noted that the has already held three hearings on the crashes, which have featured current and former Boeing employees, FAA officials and whistleblowers.
“My record on safety and oversight is vast and determination dogged,” he said, citing his work on the ValuJet crash in the 1990s. “Anyone who knows my record knows that I fight for real results, not empty rhetoric.”
Then there is the matter of DeFazio’s relative inactivity in response to Secretary Chao’s shady conduct. Chao is both the daughter of James Chao, a major Chinese shipping magnate, and the husband of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Politico reported in May that Chao has made a series of appearances indirectly promoting the company her father founded while serving as head of a federal agency overseeing the declining U.S. shipping industry in direct competition with companies like her family’s. Another Politico report just last week found that 25% of Chao’s meetings with local officials were with people from Kentucky, the state her husband represents in the Senate.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee, which has broad supervision of the executive branch, has initiated an investigation into Chao’s conduct related to her family’s company, sending a letter to Chao in mid-September demanding documents related to her communication with the company.
But DeFazio’s transportation committee, which has a narrower focus on Chao and her agency, has yet to pursue comparable action.
The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staff members who spoke to HuffPost said that given the committee’s resources it is letting the Oversight Committee take the lead on investigating Chao’s ethical queries, though it is acting in a supporting capacity. DeFazio’s committee is also in touch with the Department of Transportation’s inspector general to decide its next steps.
Hauser, of the Revolving Door Project, considers it “feckless” that DeFazio has not called on Chao to testify before the committee either about Boeing, her own conduct or any other matter. (Committee staff said they would not hesitate to call Chao before the committee if they considered it necessary.)
Critics of DeFazio’s tenure felt as though they had come across the secret to his motives in a Washington Post article at the end of August, which addressed a supposed lack of progress in the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s investigations into the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Trump built the hotel in the Old Post Office Building, which he is leasing from the federal government. That means that DeFazio’s panel has oversight over Trump’s apparent use of the hotel as a vehicle for self-enrichment over the course of his presidency.
In the Post story, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), chair of the subcommittee overseeing the hotel, suggested that DeFazio was treading carefully in his investigations into the hotel in the hopes of negotiating infrastructure legislation with Trump.
Titus subsequently took back the remarks, claiming the article “mischaracterizes” the progress that DeFazio’s committee has made. Shortly after the Post story came out, Titus joined a press release with DeFazio “correcting the record” on the committee’s work.
The heart of the investigation, which began after Trump was elected in November 2016, entails requiring the General Services Administration, the agency that manages federal government buildings, to conduct an audit of the hotel.
In his statement to HuffPost, DeFazio said that the GSA has handed over thousands of documents, but is still withholding many. He has given the administration a deadline to hand over the remainder and he will “not hesitate” to use his subpoena power to compel their release.
The challenge for Canning is making the charges against DeFazio stick in a largely rural district that Democrats are hanging on to by a thread.
Oregon’s 4th covers a large tract of land in the southwestern corner of the state, which was once home to a thriving timber industry. Eugene, which is home to the University of Oregon, and Corvallis, which is home to Oregon State, are blue dots in a sea of rural red terrain.
As rural Oregon, like rural America, has trended away from Democrats, DeFazio has defied the fate of national Democrats. In 2016, DeFazio was re-elected by 16 percentage points, but Hillary Clinton edged out Trump in the same district by a mere 0.1 points.
Canning, whose husband works at the University of Oregon, in many ways embodies the political leanings of the district’s liberal population hubs. She is a co-founder of the Center for Story-Based Strategy, a nonprofit that seeks to advance progressive causes through storytelling, and she has previously advocated for the rights of Latinx farm workers in Oregon.
DeFazio campaign manager Carly Gabrielson dismissed the criticism as contrary to Canning’s goals of taking action against climate change.
“Under the Chairman’s direction, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is moving legislation to implement the goals of the Green New Deal— goals that Doyle Canning claims to share, yet at the same time she believes that business should stop while Congress investigates Trump?” Gabrielson said. “You can’t have it both ways, and frankly it’s an absurd position.”
HuffPost pressed Canning on the difficulty of prevailing against DeFazio in a rural swing seat. Canning responded that, like many progressive challengers before her, she is betting that a principled fighter is capable of expanding the electorate by turning out nonvoters. Among other groups, she wants to appeal to the growing number of eligible Latinx voters who moved to the district for work.
“We’re building a coalition of the new face of the Democratic Party,” she said. “It’s younger, it’s more diverse, it’s more feminist, and it looks different than it did in ’86.”
The case for some progressive primary challenges is obvious.