Kaptur in 2-way fight for leadership post; Party-caucus race pivots on abortion issue

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, hopes to be the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, hopes to be the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), who fought a bitter primary contest this year and then breezed to re-election in November in the 9th Congressional District, is battling in the U.S. House Democratic caucus to claim the top-ranking Democratic seat on the House Appropriations Committee.

Miss Kaptur, the most senior Democrat on the committee, is competing with U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey (D., New York), and abortion rights has surfaced as a defining issue.

The House Democratic Caucus is scheduled to hold leadership meetings today, and the vote of the whole caucus on the appropriations race is now likely to occur on Friday.

The winner will lead the Democratic caucus in the powerful committee and will be coordinator of the ranking Democrats on 13 appropriations subcommittees.

Leadership opportunities have largely eluded the 15-term congressman from Toledo, who will soon start her 16th term. Miss Kaptur moved from a high-seniority position on the appropriations subcommittee on agriculture to a lower position in the defense subcommittee in 2006, but recently found herself unexpectedly the most senior Democrat on the appropriations committee.

According to The Hill newspaper that closely monitors Capitol Hill, Ms. Lowey’s camp argues that she is more committed to preventing anti-abortion legislation from being inserted into appropriations bills, while Miss Kaptur’s camp notes she has opposed riders defunding Planned Parenthood.

According to the National Abortion Rights Action League, Ms. Lowey has a 100 percent ranking on abortion-related votes, and Miss Kaptur's rating is 70 percent. Miss Kaptur was one of a small number of Democrats in 2010 who held out during the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act for an executive order from President Obama prohibiting any federal funds provided for insurance from being used to pay for abortions.

Matt Dennis, spokesman for Ms. Lowey, said that the contest is not about one specific issue but rather “about which candidate has the record, experience, and strength to represent Democrats most effectively on a wide variety of federal issues, including job creation, health care, education, homeland security, and much more.”

Steve Fought, Miss Kaptur’s communications director, said Miss Kaptur would not support anti-abortion riders because she is opposed to attaching unrelated legislation to appropriations bills.

He said Wednesday that Miss Kaptur met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., California) on Tuesday and was assured that Ms. Pelosi is neutral in the contest.

Mr. Fought said Miss Kaptur is better qualified than Ms. Lowey to lead the fight for middle class jobs, and that Miss Kaptur represents the most important state in the country, politically, as evidenced by the intense competition between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney for swing state Ohio in the recent election. By contrast, New York was not seriously contested by the Romney campaign.

"[Abortion rights] might recede in importance," Mr. Fought said. "Kaptur’s being more aggressive about the race. She’s talking to members in person and on the phone and she’s got other members helping her do that. Her focus is on what won the election, which is jobs in industrial states like Ohio, and I think she feels pretty good about this. A lot of members weren’t focused on this, understandably, so I think Marcy's been able to gain some momentum here.”

One of those supporting Miss Kaptur is fellow Great Lakes lawmaker John Dingell (D., Dearborn). Mr. Dingell told The Blade on Wednesday that he is “actively supporting” Miss Kaptur and said she would make an outstanding chairman, and until then, an outstanding ranking member.

“She would be an admirable choice, she would serve the Midwest, Ohio, and the Great Lakes basin states, including my state with extraordinary skill and distinction,” Mr. Dingell said.

Mr. Dingell said he had not heard about the abortion-rights issue but said it has no place in selecting a committee chairman. In 2008, Mr. Dingell lost his chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who had less seniority.

Miss Kaptur was easily re-elected in her predominantly Democratic 9th Congressional District against Republican Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher of Springfield Township, with 73 percent of the vote, according to newly certified results from the five counties in the 9th District.

Robert Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said the intraparty fight points up how “the Democratic Party has become the party of California and New York, the two coasts, and anyone from the commonsense Midwest is not eligible for leadership positions in the Democrat Party.”

“I don't have any say in this but if I was Chris Redfern, I’d be up in arms,” Mr. Bennett said in reference to Mr. Redfern, the Ohio Democratic party chairman. Mr. Bennett noted that Miss Kaptur often cited her high-ranking position on appropriations as a reason for her re-election.

Mr. Redfern could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Because of redistricting, Miss Kaptur was thrown into a primary contest against U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Cleveland), which Miss Kaptur won, in part by boasting of her seniority in the appropriations committee.

Miss Kaptur has said that no northwest Ohio lawmaker has ever been second in line to the chairmanship of appropriations. And the last Ohioan to be chairman of appropriations was James Garfield (R., Cuyahoga County), who later became president, in 1875.

Contact Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.