WASHINGTON — Democratic Reps. Dennis Cardoza of Atwater and Jim Costa of Fresno on Wednesday cast protest votes for each other as House speaker, effectively distancing themselves from party leader Nancy Pelosi.
While 173 of their fellow House Democrats supported Pelosi as speaker, a position ultimately claimed by Republican John Boehner, Cardoza and Costa sent signals that likely foreshadow their actions in the new GOP-controlled House of Representatives.
"It's a reflection of several years of frustration in trying to make sure our (San Joaquin) Valley voters were being heard," Costa said Wednesday afternoon.
Costa cited in particular his frustrations over what he called Pelosi's inattention to Central Valley water and a new University of California at Merced medical school, among other issues.
Cardoza and Costa sat together in the House chamber during the roll call, one of the rare occasions where House members shout out their vote rather than use voting cards. Costa said it was Cardoza who came up with the idea of casting protest votes for each other; as it happened, making them the first Portuguese-Americans ever to receive votes for House speaker.
"I'm frankly frustrated with the situation that transpired over the last several years," Cardoza said. "I did not get the support I felt I deserved on the Valley's housing crisis and the water crisis."
By distancing themselves from Pelosi, Cardoza and Costa are also engaged in a cost-benefit calculation whose end results cannot yet be predicted. Potentially, having already taken this public step, they gain more legislative flexibility to ally themselves with Republicans and centrist Democrats.
But if Pelosi and her allies feel in a retributive mood, the votes Wednesday could also come back to sting the dissidents in various ways.
"I'm not concerned about retribution," Cardoza said. "I'm concerned about representing my constituents. My constituents have been through hell."
Cardoza and Costa were among 19 House Democrats to vote for someone other than the outspoken liberal Pelosi as House speaker. A 20th Democrat didn't vote at all. Their actions were essentially symbolic, as the Republican majority in the House ensured Boehner's election from the start.
Other Democrats set themselves apart from Pelosi by supporting Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina or an assortment of other lawmakers.
For both Cardoza and Costa, the protest votes Wednesday mark by far their most emphatic break with the woman who has led House Democrats in both the minority and majority since 2002.
Until this year, for instance, Cardoza was a Pelosi-appointed member of the House Rules Committee, where he consistently supported the Democratic leadership's position on key procedural votes.
Cardoza and Costa both voted with the Democratic majority on last year's health care bill, among other measures. Both also faced Republican challengers last year who tried to detrimentally tie them to Pelosi.
Politically inexperienced Republican candidate Andy Vidak, in particular, pulled a respectable 48 percent of the vote with a campaign in which he pressed claims like "Costa continues to do as he is told by Pelosi ... instead of listening to the voters."
Costa, though, discounted any future campaign motivations for his speaker vote.
"It reflects the concerns I have on a policy basis," Costa said.