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Democrat Pushes For New Party Leaders

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So what can Democrats do with the opportunity they now have? We are about to move into a midterm election year. Democrats are way out of power in Washington and in most states. But they just won a special Senate election in Alabama. They are challenging a deeply unpopular president. And they have dreams of taking over one or both houses of Congress.

Linda Sanchez is one of the House Democratic leaders, vice chair of the Democratic caucus. And she's in our studios. Thanks for coming by this morning.

LINDA SANCHEZ: My pleasure to be here.

INSKEEP: I know it's early for you...

SANCHEZ: Yes (laughter).

INSKEEP: So I really appreciate that. Has Tuesday's election shifted the landscape?

SANCHEZ: I think the repercussions are still sort of settling in. I think folks are trying to digest what happened. And depending on who you ask, everybody has a different take on what it means.

INSKEEP: OK. So what is the opportunity you now have in the Democratic Party?

SANCHEZ: Well, I think, if anything, the election results show that when we engage every community, we can win even in the Deep South. And so I think Democrats are very bolstered by the fact that it was a big upset victory. We're learning from that what we can do to be successful in 2018 midterms.

INSKEEP: When you say engage every community, you're referring to the fact that the black vote was disproportionately high in Alabama.

SANCHEZ: That's correct. But there are other communities as well that were focused on - youth voters around college campuses, female voters. So I think the message from Tuesday's election for Democrats is we need to do a better job of reaching out early and harnessing the enthusiasm that voters have, engaging them and turning them out for the elections.

INSKEEP: Let me ask how you think about a dilemma that Democrats continually face. Do you focus mainly on going after President Trump? Or do you promote your own agenda?

SANCHEZ: I think we need to be very clear about what we stand for. It drives me crazy when voters say we don't know what Democrats stand for. We've always fought for the things that make quality of life good for everybody in this country, but especially for those that are looking for opportunity and looking to move up the socioeconomic ladder.

INSKEEP: I think people didn't know, really, what Democrats stood for in 2016.

SANCHEZ: I - you know, and that's fair criticism. So I think we, obviously, have to put forward a very positive agenda that resonates with people. And we have to draw the stark comparison between the policies that we hope to enact which is, you know, creating better opportunities, better jobs, better wages and what the current administration and Republican leadership - the agenda that they are pursuing.

INSKEEP: As I'm sure you know very well, many people in the Democratic base are eager to get this president out of office before the end of his term, if they can do it. And I'm sure that if Democrats were to win control of the House - the House is where you would impeach someone. There will be pressure to impeach people. Do you think the Democrats should be on the ballot in 2018 saying, put us in power and we will impeach this man?

SANCHEZ: Again, I don't think that that's a positive agenda that's going to resonate with most Americans. I think pocketbook issues are, you know, what people are most concerned about. When I travel back to my district, people are concerned whether or not they're going to have a job, whether or not they're going to have retirement security, whether or not they're going to be able to send their kids to college. Those are really the issues that we need to hunker down and focus on.

INSKEEP: The campaign involving Roy Moore in Alabama and Doug Jones, the Democrat who won, became part of this huge conversation about women in society - about the abuse of women, about assault, about sexual harassment - larger issues of how men and women relate to each other in the workplace and, really, everywhere. Is there something in there that you think your party can run on in 2018?

SANCHEZ: Well, you know, we're sort of at this watershed moment I think in the consciousness of this country, where I think people were surprised by the #metoo movement, at the number of women who have suffered the indignities of, you know, sexual harassment or sexual assault. And I think that that plays very large in the minds of, you know, what is the system look like? What - you know, why is it stacked against women? Why have they had to endure this and keep silent for so long?

And I think once you sort of unleash the power of, hey, we're going to stand up and speak out, you've unleashed this power of, you know, more women wanting to run for office - people wanting to make policy changes that level the playing field. And I think there is something there. I think the engagement of women is going to be pivotal for the 2018 elections. If you, you know, look at all of these allegations of sexual assault - not that they don't happen - but you've never heard one woman in the Congress' name mentioned. So, you know, I think that's very telling.

INSKEEP: Meaning that - you mean that women in Congress should be speaking out a little more directly? I mean, we did have Debbie Dingell on the program talking the other day about this.

SANCHEZ: No, I mean, you don't hear cases where allegations are made against female members of congress sexually harassing...

INSKEEP: Oh, I see what you're saying. It is men who are guilty here, broadly speaking.

SANCHEZ: Well, so far, you have not seen a single instance of people, you know, alleging that female lawmakers are behaving inappropriately with staff or interns.

INSKEEP: So a campaign slogan might be, cut down on sexual harassment, elect more women.

SANCHEZ: Well, I don't think you have to be that overt. I think, you know, women understand that, you know, hey, this is an issue that we've had to deal with in the workplace for many years. It doesn't just happen in Congress, doesn't happen - doesn't just happen in Hollywood or Wall Street. It's every single workplace.

INSKEEP: Some people will know that you made some remarks about the leaders under which you will run in 2018. You said of Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, the top people in the House Democratic Caucus, quote, "I think it's time to pass the torch to a new generation." They're all of the same generation, the people above you. And again, their contributions are substantial, but it's time we need to pass that torch. Should Nancy Pelosi retire?

SANCHEZ: I will say this. Those comments, you know, were, you know, made very public. And when you say passing the torch, it assumes some cooperation. It assumes that, you know, a changing of - a natural changing of the guard in which both parties recognize that that needs to happen.

INSKEEP: She doesn't seem to be ready to pass the torch.

SANCHEZ: And, you know, I think that, you know, the Democratic caucus will ultimately decide. But, you know, I do think that there is enough talent in our caucus and enough talent that we need to develop to, you know, bring in that next generation of leaders.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, can you win the House in 2018 with Nancy Pelosi as the speaker in waiting, polarizing figure as she sometimes is?

SANCHEZ: I think we can win back the House in 2018. I think the Democratic message is a strong enough one...

INSKEEP: With Nancy Pelosi?

SANCHEZ: With anybody.

INSKEEP: Linda Sanchez, thank you very much, really appreciate you coming by.

SANCHEZ: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: She is the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, one of the House leaders who is looking forward to the election in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "THE DAWN THIEF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.