Five House Democrats Ready To Step Up
February 12, 2010
By: Richard E. Cohen
Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, D-Ohio, is among the at-risk freshmen who have been enjoying plenty of special attention lately from Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. In November, Kilroy faces a rematch against a former GOP state senator whom she defeated in 2008 by only 2,312 votes. Republicans, who had held the seat for the previous 42 years, are aggressively targeting Kilroy. So Van Hollen has swung into action in his dual role as assistant to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The morning after President Obama's State of the Union address, the pair flew to Columbus, where Van Hollen was a featured guest at a Kilroy meeting with local business leaders to talk about job-creation efforts. He also attended a fundraising lunch for her. Two weeks earlier, Van Hollen had spearheaded a Capitol Hill press conference to call attention to one of Kilroy's initiatives, a provision in the House-passed health care reform bill that would end anticompetitive patent settlements allowing pharmaceutical companies to keep less expensive drugs off the market.
"He is a generous supporter," Kilroy said in an interview. "He works extremely hard on a range of issues on which we share interests. He absolutely is a respected leader in the Democratic Caucus. Freshman members appreciate his assistance."
In an interview in his Rockville district office, Van Hollen said that helping vulnerable Democrats is a key part of his job. "I work with new members in the toughest districts to make sure they are doing everything to keep in touch with their constituents and that they are able to influence the legislative process with their good ideas," he said. "It used to be the case that new members were seen and not heard. Speaker Pelosi wants to make sure that the new members shine."
Although Pelosi is at the center of virtually everything in the House -- legislation, campaigns, fundraising, communications, and more -- she relies on a network of trusted colleagues to share the heavy load and help her tend to 254 Democratic members. Of course, her elite corps is headed by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., and several influential committee chairmen.
But beyond those top surrogates, a new generation of savvy House Democratic leaders has emerged to take on numerous key assignments for Pelosi. Although younger and more junior in seniority, they are skilled in both politics and policy. These workers bees are constantly hovering in the various backrooms where party decisions and strategies are forged. They also keep busy with their more conventional work in House committees and with local district issues.
Van Hollen, 51, is the most visible of these rising stars. The others include:
• Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., 43, who is chairwoman of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee; one of nine chief deputy majority whips; and a vice chairwoman at both the DCCC and the Democratic National Committee.
• Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., 47, who is also a chief deputy whip and a DCCC vice chairman, as well as chairman of the House New Democrat Coalition and a leading advocate of immigration reform.
• Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., 52, the vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and a senior member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
• Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., 52, the vice chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a chief deputy whip, and a leader on abortion and embryonic-stem-cell issues.
"They are all active members, and each has the speaker's confidence," said Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly. "They work hard and represent diverse parts of the caucus. Their work helps our overall efforts.... They all have the larger interest of keeping our majority."
In all likelihood, future House Democratic leaders will come from this group. Among the chamber's current top three, Pelosi and Clyburn are both 69, and Hoyer is 70. Retirement -- voluntary or not -- looms on the horizon. If the party suffers a blowout in this year's election, pressure for change could come sooner rather than later. The political buzz has been growing that Pelosi, in particular, could become a victim if Democrats see big losses in November.
So far, at least, upwardly mobile members have been careful to keep their ambitions in check and to pose no threat to their leaders. But that doesn't prevent them from considering their options and having private discussions with allies. In the meantime, their various House activities provide a twofer opportunity to show their loyalty to the party while also demonstrating their abilities, should openings occur. Clearly, the seniority system in which members bided their time before seeking to move up the ladder is largely a thing of the past.
"With the rise of the 24/7 news cycle, more independent voices in the House, and the proliferation of caucuses that go beyond a member's committee work, there are many more generalists in the House," noted Donald Foley, who was a top aide for 12 years to then-Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., before he became House majority leader in 1989. "The path to leadership success is now more crowded. Members who take on assignments and become an early-warning system have become invaluable to leadership."
"Seniority is not the only predictor of leadership," added Foley, who now is director of North American public affairs for Ketchum.
Perhaps the best example of a House Democratic insurgent who smashed the hierarchical tradition is Pelosi herself. In 2001, she quietly assembled a corps of allies and successfully challenged the more experienced Hoyer when the No. 2 leadership post opened. Although she now appears to be in firm control, she can hardly squelch the ambitions of the next generation's aspirants.
"These members are positioning themselves," a Democratic aide said. "That's what good politicians do."
Van Hollen, Wasserman Schultz, Crowley, Becerra, and DeGette are far from the only ambitious upstarts in the caucus. Although the group covers a broad regional and demographic sweep, it does not include a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, for example. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., had signaled leadership ambitions before he decided to run for the Senate. Asked which other CBC members have shown such potential, veteran aides in two leadership offices each mentioned Reps. Elijah Cummings, 59, and Donna Edwards, 51, both D-Md. Depending on the circumstances when leadership vacancies occur, other contenders could surface, including Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut, 61, a Pelosi protege.
Van Hollen: Sharp Partisan Instincts
Van Hollen launched his political career as a policy activist, but he lately has sharpened his partisan antennae. After growing up overseas as a Foreign Service brat, he worked in the late 1980s as an aide to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where his issues included arms control and the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds during the Iraq-Iran war. He served 12 years in the Maryland Legislature before running for Congress in 2002 in an upscale district based in Montgomery County. In the Democratic primary, Van Hollen defeated Mark Shriver, a Kennedy cousin who had the support of much of the party establishment, including Hoyer.
In the House, Van Hollen became an ally of then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., a freshman classmate, and he served as a lieutenant when Emanuel became DCCC chairman and engineered the Democrats' stunning 2006 electoral success. For the 2008 election cycle, Pelosi asked Van Hollen to head the DCCC and take on the challenging task of building on the Democrats' new majority. He passed that test with flying colors, as Democrats gained an additional 25 House seats, many of them in what had been deeply red districts.
After the 2008 election, Van Hollen publicly stated that he wanted to move beyond campaign work, and he voiced interest in succeeding Emanuel as Democratic Caucus chairman. But Pelosi had other plans, and, not surprisingly, she got her way. Van Hollen stayed at the DCCC but gained an additional portfolio inside the Capitol as assistant to the speaker. "In this tough time politically, she didn't want a changing of the guard," Van Hollen recounted. "The speaker has been very strategic in how she has put together a team."
Like Pelosi, Van Hollen makes frequent trips on behalf of endangered Democratic members and the party's challenger candidates. After his January 28 appearances for Kilroy, he went on that day to attend fundraisers for Paula Brooks, who is challenging Republican Rep. Pat Tiberi in another Columbus-area district, and for freshman Democratic Rep. Steve Driehaus in Cincinnati. The next day, Van Hollen was in Omaha, Neb., for Tom White, who is taking on GOP Rep. Lee Terry. Republicans, however, dismiss his grassroots impact. "It's good for us that Chris Van Hollen will remind people of Nancy Pelosi's overreaching," Tiberi said.
Back in Washington, Van Hollen's stepped-up role on Capitol Hill has boosted his national media presence. After Obama unveiled his budget on February 1, Van Hollen and his aides spearheaded Democratic attacks on the GOP's alternatives. "House Republicans Dust Off Failed Plans to Privatize Social Security and Dismantle Medicare," read the headline of a Van Hollen press release that featured reactions from more than a dozen House Democrats. Following the Supreme Court's January 21 ruling that allows corporate spending in political campaigns, Van Hollen took the lead for House Democrats in declaring opposition at a press conference with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Van Hollen dismissed concerns about tensions between his campaign responsibilities and legislative demands. "I am not the whip," he explained. "I want to make sure that the concerns of new members are addressed.... If members feel that something will put them in jeopardy with their constituents, it's not my job to substitute for their judgment."
Six aides support Van Hollen in his leadership office, and several dozen more work for him at the DCCC. Effective management of his staff resources has contributed to his success, but his graduate degree in public policy from Harvard and his law degree from Georgetown University have certainly facilitated his quick study of complex issues. Van Hollen has the added convenience of a quick commute from his district to the Hill, although he emphasizes that he has not neglected what has become a safe Democratic base.
"The danger for some members is that they lose touch with local issues," Van Hollen said. "Part of my responsibility is to be an active advocate for my community. The most frustrating thing for a constituent is to get a run-around."
One big uncertainty hangs over Van Hollen's growing influence in the House: his desire to move to the Senate. When a Senate seat opened in 2005, he spent many weeks mulling a run, even though party leaders -- including Hoyer -- had announced support for the eventual winner, then-Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md.
When asked in the recent interview whether he would be interested in succeeding 73-year-old Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Van Hollen replied, "If there were an open seat, I would seriously consider it." But, he added, his added House responsibilities have made for "a different equation."
Wasserman Schultz: 'I Want To Do More'
Wasserman Schultz caused a stir on Capitol Hill in early December when she hired veteran reporter Jonathan Allen, who had most recently worked for Congressional Quarterly and Politico, as executive director of her leadership political action committee, Democrats Win Seats (or DWS, echoing her well-known monogram). Last year, she raised nearly $5 million for House Democrats, matching the dollars brought in by more-senior Democratic leaders, other than Pelosi.
In an interview, Wasserman Schultz said that her multiple policy and campaign responsibilities have stretched her so thin that she needed a political veteran to help expand her network and reach out to colleagues. "My experience is that the speaker rewards hard work, and I am willing to work hard to advance our goals," she said. "But my staff works at overcapacity, and I want to do more. The best way I can do that is to add to my political staff."
As head of the DCCC's Frontline program for embattled incumbents, most of whom are junior members, Wasserman Schultz said she has structured her political operations to parallel those of Van Hollen, with whom she works closely. "One person cannot do it all. We want to make sure that members have the assets," she said. "Much of our work is to be responsive to what other members say that they need." For Wasserman Schultz, that includes serving as the Appropriations Committee's liaison to "keep track of the interests of Frontline members." Other Appropriations subcommittee chairmen "come to me and ask about those priorities."
Wasserman Schultz regularly prowls the House floor during votes to check with colleagues on various tasks. Her added responsibilities as a party spokeswoman -- a role that Obama requested she take on, even though she was an early supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 presidential primary -- have increased her television appearances. Her determination and drive, and her extraordinarily full workload, barely shifted when she underwent seven surgeries for breast cancer in 2007 and 2008.
Although Wasserman Schultz would not discuss her possible leadership interests, her friends were less reticent. "For any caucus member who is ambitious, works hard, and has a secure base, it's smart to build their political organization," said Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who has faced competitive re-elections. "Debbie is tireless in taking her personal time to help other Democrats." Although Giffords acknowledged, "I would be surprised if she didn't seek a leadership position," she cautioned, "Politics is timing and luck, with a certain amount of unpredictability.... Debbie has time on her side."
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa -- another up-and-coming member and the DCCC's vice chairman for candidate recruitment -- said that a leadership position for Wasserman Schultz is inevitable. "Competition is when there is a head-to-head battle. That is not happening. But some members are in the conversation. Debbie is, and she wants to be."
Crowley: Feet In Many Camps
Crowley is a political natural who keeps one foot in the old-style clubhouse as chairman of the Queens Democratic Party in New York City. But he also knows his way around Washington's K Street because he is the DCCC's chief money man and has his own leadership PAC that employs a full-time fundraiser.
Crowley works on issues too. Along with Van Hollen and Becerra, he serves on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Since taking over last year as chairman of the moderate House New Democrats, Crowley has sought to work collaboratively with the party's leaders -- and in a less-confrontational manner than the more-populist members of the Blue Dog Coalition.
"My focus is to get everyone to realize that we are all Democrats," Crowley said in an interview. "The success of the New Democrats is connected to the success of the Democratic Caucus." He cited, for example, his group's backroom success in reshaping elements of the financial regulatory reform bill that the House passed in December.
A leading backer of comprehensive immigration reform, Crowley won Clyburn's approval last month to serve as the whip organization's go-to person this year on the issue. At a packed December rally in a Rayburn House Office Building hearing room, Crowley demonstrated his ability to connect on a personal level as he rubbed shoulders with immigrants and with Latino and African-American colleagues in the House.
Back in 2007, he worked with Becerra and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the senior chief deputy whip, to organize Democratic Caucus listening sessions on possible immigration legislation. Although the House did not act that year, because a companion bill died in the Senate, Clyburn said that the House had been prepared to act, partly because of the consensus-building success of Crowley and his partners.
Many Democrats contend that the prospects for immigration legislation are dim this year because the issue could jeopardize their party in heartland districts, but Crowley is more upbeat. "Polling indicates that the public wants us to take action. And the president has taken on the issue himself," he said. "There will always be some votes that are problematic for some members. But if we do this properly, America will reward us."
Unlike most other aspiring leaders, Crowley has no reason to mask his ambitions. When he sought the caucus vice chairman post in 2006, he led on the first ballot but ultimately lost to Larson, who had Pelosi's support. "I have learned from my shortcomings," he said. "I thank the speaker for the faith that she has put in me since then. I have awesome responsibilities."
When Becerra in late 2008 considered quitting the House to join the Obama administration, Crowley said, "I had the votes" to win the vice chairman slot that would have opened up. "We don't compete with each other," he added. "But we are all competitive. And it's exhilarating."
Becerra: Quietly Self-Confident
Becerra has a lot going for him: He is from Pelosi's home state, he is a leader of the nation's most rapidly growing minority group, and he has gained enough seniority to place him in line for a Ways and Means subcommittee chairmanship next year, assuming that Democrats retain House control.
In an interview, Becerra suggested that he has a special interest in leadership politics. "I am extremely fortunate to hold my station in life. My father had a sixth-grade education and I am the first in my family to graduate from college," he said. "I have the opportunity to operate on many issues. I will make the most of where I am."
Although he doesn't seek the spotlight as eagerly as some of his colleagues, Becerra does not lack self-confidence. During the health care reform debate, he took the lead at Ways and Means and then in the Democratic Caucus to find common ground on controversial geographic disparities in Medicare reimbursement rates. "I convened discussions and helped to resolve the issue," he said. "It was hard work."
As caucus vice chairman, he is heavily involved in minority issues. With his five leadership aides, he has worked with Democratic members on improving relations with minority-language media in their districts so they can boost their constituent communications. He also has collaborated with other Democratic leaders to build consensus on immigration reform. Becerra spearheaded a February 3 bipartisan press conference with Latino advocacy groups to encourage participation in the 2010 census. "I will be speaking both nationally and in local communities because it's critical to build trust," especially with minority groups, he said.
In addition, Becerra recently moved toward unveiling a Pelosi-backed initiative to encourage more diversity in hiring congressional staff. Following nearly yearlong discussions with members, their aides, House officers, Senate leaders, and outside groups, he said, "we were able to move it along."
In November 2008, Becerra easily defeated a challenge to his leadership post from Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. But a few days later, he seriously considered an unexpected offer to become Obama's U.S. trade representative. "I was intrigued by the opportunity to consider another post," he said.
By deciding to remain in the House, he said, "I saw the opportunity to deal with many issues and not just trade." He rejected speculation that his equivocation -- which prompted other Democrats to make provisional plans to seek his leadership job -- would affect his advancement in the chamber, where members want their leaders to demonstrate a commitment to the institution. "If there were doubts, I decided to close the door," Becerra said. "There were no downsides with other members."
DeGette: Going Her Own Way
When DeGette was asked in an interview if she is interested in taking a top leadership post, she replied unequivocally, "Absolutely." But she is taking an unconventional route, focusing on policy and mostly steering clear of campaign politics rather than trying to cover all the bases.
In the party's grand shuffle after Democrats won the House majority in the 2006 election, DeGette publicly stated her interest in moving up to majority whip. After Clyburn stepped forward to seek the post, she backed off, she said, to spare the party another tough internal contest in addition to the challenge that the late Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., was waging against Hoyer for majority leader. "I believe that I would have won," she told National Journal a few weeks later, although the Clyburn camp dismissed her claim.
DeGette became one of Clyburn's chief deputy whips and she maintained her alliance with Hoyer (she was a leading ally in his epic but unsuccessful 2001 contest against Pelosi). She has also focused on her Energy and Commerce Committee work. Her leadership and committee assignments "dovetail," DeGette said, as when she led the whipping on the floor last June for the panel's climate-change measure. "I know the substance of the issues," she said, "and I can ask [undecided] members about the substance" of their concerns.
DeGette was first tapped as Energy and Commerce vice chairwoman in 2007 by then-Chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., who wanted a deputy to work with other committee Democrats to resolve internal disputes. But in November 2008, she found herself on the wrong side of an intraparty war when Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., challenged Dingell for the chairmanship. The victorious Waxman nonetheless offered an olive branch by retaining DeGette as vice chairwoman, enabling her to serve as a link between the two camps.
Under both Dingell and Waxman, DeGette has worked actively on liberal initiatives. With Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., she led the coalition to expand federal funds for stem-cell research. President Bush vetoed the bill in 2007, but Obama removed most federal restrictions soon after he took office last year. She also has pursued green-energy initiatives.
During Energy and Commerce's health care deliberations last year, DeGette avidly pressed for the most sweeping reforms. As co-chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus of 190 Democrats, she took the lead in dramatically denouncing Pelosi's concession to include a strong anti-abortion provision in the House-passed health care bill. In the interview with NJ, DeGette said she wants to avoid "a devil's bargain" but has confidence about reaching a final deal. "I like to work out compromises," she said. "These roles are seamless. You need good policy, and you have to get the votes."
Although she lacks a formal campaign post, DeGette has used her policy expertise to make numerous campaign and fundraising appearances for House Democratic candidates. "I can go to a swing district and [speak about] the prominent issues that I work on," she said.
Could DeGette combine her policy activism and her willingness to go her own way into a successful leadership bid, despite her long-standing tensions with Pelosi? DeGette could come out on top if House election carnage resulted in the Pelosi team's ouster and the takeover by a new regime seeking a Hoyer-linked liberal.
Although that prospect seems dim, in the changing world facing House Democrats, the only certainty may be uncertainty. The continued maneuvering among would-be leadership contenders is likely to create new alliances and routes to success that will test even the most creative Type A politicians.