By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Congressional leaders tapped Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen yesterday to be the Democrats' chief recruiter, fundraiser and protector of the House majority for the 2008 elections, an acknowledgment of his role in helping the party win control last month and his rising stature on Capitol Hill.
House Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Van Hollen would succeed Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a high-profile position for the tenacious, detail-oriented lawyer and former legislative staffer, who was first elected four years ago.
Emanuel, who will chair the Democratic Caucus, praised his successor yesterday as a "political strategist and thinker of the first order" and said Van Hollen's recruitment of House candidates helped create the first Democratic majority elected in 12 years.
"Throughout this election, I sought his advice and counsel in every critical decision I had to make," Emanuel said in a statement.
Under Van Hollen, who represents Montgomery County and a sliver of Prince George's County, House Democrats will try to secure their 233 seats. The announcement follows his appointment by Pelosi last week to the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which sets tax policy.
After Democratic victories in 30 districts held by Republicans, political analysts say, Van Hollen faces a significant challenge.
"This is a campaign committee that lost no seats in 2006, and that's virtually impossible to duplicate," said Amy Walter, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report who tracks House races.
Van Hollen, 47, has overcome long odds before. He emerged from a field of nine candidates to join the Maryland House of Delegates in 1990 and defeated an incumbent four years later to move up to the state Senate. His election to the U.S. House in 2002 came after two grueling, costly election battles.
That year, Van Hollen, who lives in Kensington, won a four-way primary contest that included early favorite Mark K. Shriver of the Kennedy family. He went on to defeat Rep. Constance A. Morella, a popular Republican.
Maryland Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) called Van Hollen a hard-working go-getter who should never be underestimated.
"He doesn't take no for an answer. He pursues his goals tenaciously," Miller said yesterday, recalling Van Hollen's anti-tobacco and anti-gun legislation in Annapolis. "We'd try to get him to moderate his views, and he'd just go busting forward with a Chevy Chase, Kensington agenda, and we'd have to adjust."
In the past year, Van Hollen worked closely with Emanuel as a leader of the campaign committee's effort to pick up seats in Republican strongholds. He spent months traveling from Pennsylvania to Ohio and Indiana to identify and mentor candidates, then helped build fledgling campaign and fundraising operations.
Van Hollen said he drew on his experience from 2002 and worked to convince potential candidates that running against "incumbent members who hadn't faced challenges in a long time was doable, that they could win."
The challenge now, he said, is "to continue recruiting to make sure we're in a position to continue the momentum to change direction in Washington."
On the Hill, Van Hollen is considered part of a younger generation of Democrats whom Pelosi is grooming through leadership opportunities. He is a member of the 30-Something Working Group, an informal team that helped spread the party's message from the House floor during the campaign. He is considered a reliable liberal and has voted against Bush tax cuts, a ban on "partial birth" abortion and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.
Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi, said Van Hollen's appointment is a vote of confidence by Pelosi in his political judgment, ability to recruit candidates and raise money. He's one of "our bright young stars," Daly said.
Although Pelosi's selection of an Emanuel lieutenant signals an interest in continuity in the party's campaign strategy, Van Hollen's low-key, cerebral style contrasts with that of his high-wattage, profanity-prone predecessor, colleagues say.
"Rahm is Type-A on steroids, and Chris is very even-keeled, very levelheaded, so you couldn't get two people more opposite personality-wise," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who co-chaired the so-called Red to Blue project with Van Hollen. "But the most important similarity is they both have an incredibly strong work ethic and a devotion to detail."