Race becomes new flashpoint with Democrats Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

WASHINGTON — The debate between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other House Democrats over migrant children in detention at the border was wrenching enough. Then it became about race.

First, the freshman’s chief of staff compared more centrist Democrats to 1940s segregationists. Then Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY., accused Speaker Nancy Pelosi of “singling out” her and fellow newcomers, all women of color.

By Thursday, the rhetoric escalated, overshadowing the agenda and pushing House Democrats way off message with the most divisive upheaval since they took control of the chamber this year. Longtime lawmakers were stunned.

“How dare they try to play the race card at this point,” said Rep. William Lacy Clay, an African-American Democrat from Missouri who faces a primary challenge backed by allies of Ocasio-Cortez. He called those making the claims “ignorant” of racial history. “It shows the weakness of their argument. It’s damaging to this party and the internal workings of the Democratic party.”

Rep. John Lewis, the Civil Rights icon, shared his view.

Lewis said it was “a little too far” for the staff member to compare lawmakers to segregationists.

“We all must work together, pull together for the country’s good,” the Georgia Democrat said in an interview. “The great majority of the caucus membership tends to work together and get along. We need to go forward, not backward.”

The problems have been developing for weeks, mounting as Congress struggled to pass a border funding package, but now may force a reckoning among Democrats that spills beyond Capitol Hill and into the 2020 campaigns.

Late last month, tensions grew between liberals, including Ocasio-Cortez and the “squad” of three other freshmen, and centrists from the Problem Solvers, Blue Dog and New Democratic caucuses over protections for migrant children and families in detention. With time ticking before funding ran out — and lawmakers set to leave town for the July 4th holiday — centrists revolted, forcing Pelosi to drop liberal demands and approve a more modest Senate version of the bill.