Rep. Marc Veasey of Texas thinks he's the future of the Democratic Party: Moderate, African-American and focused on helping Democrats reconnect with the working-class voters who abandoned them for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
In recent weeks, he's also joined a handful of other up-and-coming Democrats in criticizing his party's current leadership, suggesting Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's days as head of the party could be numbered. Democrats, he said, have abandoned the center of the country in favor of coastal strongholds.
But those remarks could mean Veasey, who represents an overwhelmingly Democratic and minority-heavy district, could open himself up to a challenge from the left in 2018.
He also risks looking opportunistic in taking shots at Pelosi, who he campaigned alongside just three months ago in Dallas. And after his comments questioning her future, he wrote a Facebook post reinforcing his support for her.
At an interview in his office this week, Veasey said he fully expects Pelosi to stay in the leadership "as long as she wants," while he emphasized his vision of a party more focused on the country's geographic and political center.
"We do have some really great leaders in the House ... all of them are in their 70s," said Veasey, who is 46. Pelosi is 77. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is 78, and Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., is 77.
"When they get ready to leave I do think that we have a great group of people who are willing, able and ready to step up and lead the party," Veasey said, citing Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy, Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty and Illinois Rep. Cheri Bustos, as examples. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, challenged Pelosi for the top leadership post last year and lost badly.
But Veasey also has plenty of his own ambition and ideas.
After the 2016 election, he and Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle formed the Blue Collar Caucus, aimed at helping his party win back working-class voters. The group has met four times in 2017, and hosted leaders from major labor groups such as the AFL-CIO and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
He's also hosted nearly 50 "Marc Means Business" events in his district, where he joins local workers for manual labor jobs alongside the type of voters he said Democrats have overlooked in recent years.
Between planting ground cover and laying mulch at the International Harvest Christian Fellowship Church in Fort Worth on Wednesday, Veasey stressed the need for Democrats to take a hard look at why they lost the White House as well as control of both chambers of Congress in 2016.
"We're not just in an odd place in history," said Veasey. "We have a lot of work to do to get these voters to start believing in us again."
Citing the day's event as an example, Veasey said Democrats need to realize, "Working people are starting to say the Democratic Party doesn't care about my job anymore."
He got a taste of that attitude Wednesday. The owner of A&T Landscaping company working with Veasey, Allan Harris, suggested Democrats had lost his vote by marching left on social issues, instead of emphasizing jobs. Harris, who voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, said he wrote in Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for president last year.
Veasey had other thoughts about his party, notably that it's too focused on winning on the coasts.
"We can't count on winning more seats in California and New York and thinking that's going to be enough," he said. "We have to start winning some of the areas we used to win and get people to start believing in us."
Asked whether Pelosi would hurt those chances, Veasey said, "No ... because most people know Donald Trump needs a backstop."
Veasey said he's not looking to break into House leadership while his son is in school, but said he'll be interested sometime in the future should he get re-elected.
He has an example to follow that he's seen up close. Veasey worked for former Fort Worth Rep. Martin Frost, who challenged Pelosi in 2002 for minority leader in a leadership battle that centered on many of the same intra-party tensions.
"I think I have some really good ideas and a good vision for the future of the Democratic Party, and I understand what it takes to be able to win," said Veasey.
"If you look at Martin's leadership style and what he kind of represented, he was very much a centrist Democrat, Jim Wright was a centrist Democrat," said Veasey, citing two of his predecessors representing Fort Worth. Wright was speaker of the House from 1987 to 1989.
"If Democrats are going to take back the House, the only way we're going to do it is by electing people who fit that mold," Veasey said.
That same outlook, though, could cost Veasey the opportunity to be in the House by the time he's ready for a promotion.
His district is majority-minority, but almost three times as Hispanic as it is black. Veasey won the seat against a more liberal Hispanic candidate, Domingo Garcia, in 2012. Garcia has toyed with the idea of running again, as Democrats in the state have focused on efforts to more effectively turn out Hispanic voters.
But Veasey has also managed to win over some unusual allies on the left, and other Democrats say that could insulate him.
"There's a way to be pro-business and pro-worker and pro-labor all at the same time and Marc reflects that," said Chuck Rocha, a Democratic pollster from Texas who specializes in Latino turnout and worked on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.
"The new American electorate is younger, more diverse, and more multiethnic," added Rocha. "People like Veasey are exactly who they're looking to vote for."
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