Coelho to Chair Gore Campaign
By Dan Balz
The surprise choice of Coelho, an investment banker and businessman who as a House member turned the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) into a powerful fund-raising machine in the 1980s, signaled Gore's acknowledgment of criticism from other Democrats that his campaign lacked strong leadership and clear lines of authority.
In the face of a stiff primary challenge from former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley and polls showing the vice president running behind Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole, Gore has been forced to accelerate his organizational efforts and campaign travel in an effort to reassure supporters that he is not taking the race for granted.
In a statement, Gore called Coelho "a great leader in every endeavor he has undertaken" and said the addition of his former colleague in the House "will make a strong campaign even stronger."
Countering complaints about Gore's operation, the former House member from California said he was "excited" to take control of the campaign. "This is not a campaign that's broken," Coelho said in an interview. "It's growing. All the parts need to come together and take it up to the next step."
Coelho, whose appointment was first reported yesterday by the New York Times, said he would seek to bring harmony to a Gore operation that critics say has been top-heavy with senior advisers but lacking in direction. Without accepting that critique, Coelho said, "We've got to corral them, contain them and develop into a message that wins this race for us. I don't buy the line that other people have. I think this is a campaign that is right in step."
Gore's campaign has been notable for its competing power centers. They include his vice presidential staff, the campaign staff, old friends from Tennessee and particularly a handful of former top aides now in the private sector but still in close touch with the vice president.
Friends of Coelho said he represented the kind of senior Democrat who could bring discipline to the operation, hand out assignments and hold everyone accountable. "He's an adult," said one congressional Democrat. "He's respected. They have a lot of talented people. But one person was not in charge."
For that to happen, however, Gore allies said the vice president must invest Coelho with full authority, something they said he has been reluctant to do in the past.
Coelho made his reputation as DCCC chairman during the Reagan presidency, when House Democrats were worried about losing their majority. Regarded as one of the party's shrewdest strategists, he rose to become the third-ranking Democrat in the House. But in spring 1989, he abruptly resigned his seat after ethical questions were raised about an unusual $100,000 junk bond investment he had made and his failure to disclose how it was financed.
The Justice Department looked into the transaction but ended up sending Coelho a letter that it had closed the investigation without taking any action. Coelho yesterday called the transaction "a minor infraction" and that he had left the House voluntarily because he did not want to damage further a Democratic Party reeling from the pending resignation, for ethical misconduct, by then-House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.).
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said he did not believe Coelho's resignation would raise ethical questions for Gore's campaign. "That is not a problem," Gephardt said. "He is an ethical, good person. . . . He left because he wanted to go and do something else."
After leaving the House, Coelho served as managing partner of the New York investment banking firm of Wertheim Schroder & Co. and later formed an education technology company. He is on a number of corporate boards and has been active in disability issues. He has become wealthy and said he will work for Gore's campaign "pro bono."
Coelho stayed largely out of politics after leaving the House, although he was tapped by President Clinton and then-White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta to help shape strategy during the 1994 midterm elections that ended with a GOP takeover of the House and Senate. Coelho said his role was minimal.
Coelho's appointment won praise from leading Democrats. Gephardt, in a telephone interview, said Coelho has "all the experience and moxie and know-how that they need in the campaign" and discounted criticisms of the Gore operation. "When you're in the position Al Gore's in, you're always going to hear this stuff," he said, adding that Coelho's appointment "answers a lot of the criticism. There will be more coherence and a better and positive team work that comes out of this year."
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