After Many Battles, Still on the Front Lines
Friday, October 27, 2006
Karin Johanson loves studying the tiny print in the dozens of political polls that land on her desk every morning. She can tell you what's happening in Indiana's 8th Congressional District at any given moment, and why 20 volunteers must be dispatched pronto to an obscure precinct in Michigan.
She can also probably predict with scary accuracy how many seats Democrats will pick up in the Nov. 7 midterm elections -- but she's too superstitious to say.
Johanson, 51, is one of those people whose names you never hear, a political junkie who has been toiling in the backwaters of Democratic politics for more than 30 years -- and one who is playing a huge role in the party's efforts to regain the House.
She is the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the minority party's campaign organ colloquially known as the "D Triple C," and she knows more about the individual races in the 435 congressional districts than most of the candidates do.
If her boss, the outspokenly partisan Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), is the aggressive face of the Democratic push, Johanson is his anchor, the person who can sit at her office near the Capitol and see the whole country at a glance -- or in critical little parts that might add up to a win.
"She's Rahm's other side," says friend Mary Beth Cahill, who ran Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential bid in 2004. "Someone has to be there every day to make sure everything works."
This Johanson does with a staff of 60 (all quite young), a volunteer pool of 700 and a budget of $40 million, $10 million of which goes straight into the districts for grass-roots efforts. Yesterday, she had 100 active broadcast political commercials in her e-mail queue waiting to be viewed.
"Karin put together 40 customized plans in 40 districts with 40 ground operations," Emanuel said. "She has intimate knowledge of every district. She knows what works and what doesn't because she's been there before. I'm a very obsessive person, and I give her six things to do and she does seven."
Johanson has indeed been down this road many times before, as the DCCC's West Coast political director in the 1994 (Democratic nightmare) cycle and political director in 2000. Before that, she was political director of Emily's List -- the political action committee that supports female candidates -- during the 1992 "year of the woman." Twenty-one new Democratic women were elected to the House, and Emily's List founder Ellen Malcolm credits Johanson with recruiting most of them.
"She knows every player in every district," Malcolm said. Even after 1995, when the GOP took control of the House, Johanson was not deterred from recruiting candidates. "We'd say, 'What about so-and-so?' and Karin would say, 'Oh, I asked her twice, and she said no,' " Malcolm said. "Everyone was saying no, but she was persistent, and the environment started to shift."
Johanson grew up in Princeton, N.J., and recalls being a partisan very early. She was for Eugene McCarthy when she was 12 because she opposed the Vietnam War, and she named her pet goldfish Hubert, Horatio and Humphrey. She attended American University but took some time off before graduating to work for then-Rep. Gladys N. Spellman (D-Md.). Later, she spent 10 years working for Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), as his press secretary and later as his chief of staff.
Johanson said that after Democrats lost the House in 1994, she couldn't bring herself to go up to the Hill for a year. "It was too depressing. I didn't want to see Republicans," she said. "I didn't even go up to the credit union."
Although she said she won't let herself get too enthusiastic this year about what seems to be a Democratic wave, Johanson admits that it feels very different. "There is a huge energy among Democrats out there. We know what we running against." Unlike in 2004, when Democrats struggled to find issues, she said, this year "we're not making it up."
The war in Iraq, she said, is the dominant issue "because there is something there for everyone to be concerned about -- whether it's expenditures, or body armor, or questions about why our government hasn't done better to prepare the Iraqis.
"Even people who support the war think something needs to be done," she said. "And all these scandals -- it's been overwhelming."
Johanson said the DCCC is treating 54 districts as competitive -- an unusually high number.
At a time in life when most political operatives have already jettisoned the high-adrenaline life of retail politics and a constant diet of fast food, Johanson isn't going anywhere soon.
"I love electoral politics," she said. "I like being in the fight. I think everything else is boring by comparison. I think everybody who has done it loves it, but most people feel like they have to do something else."