Democrats In House Reelect Gephardt
By Juliet Eilperin
Buoyed by their recent gain of five House seats, congressional Democrats chose the team they hope will achieve that goal, electing their chief fund-raiser Martin Frost (Tex.) as Democratic Caucus chairman -- the third-ranking job -- and Rep. Robert Menendez (N.J.) as caucus vice chairman.
In contrast to the Republicans, who meet Wednesday to pick their leaders, no Democrats challenged any of their incumbents. Gephardt and Minority Whip David E. Bonior (Mich.) kept their jobs without opposition, while Frost and Menendez will take over for outgoing Reps. Vic Fazio (Calif.), who is retiring, and Barbara B. Kennelly (Conn.), who ran unsuccessfully for governor.
Several Democrats described the voting behind closed doors on the House floor as a "love fest," in which lawmakers congratulated themselves on their strong showing earlier this month. The balloting yesterday left House Democrats without a woman in a senior post and accentuated the decidely liberal look of their leadership.
But Democratic leaders said they will likely install women in more junior leadership posts today and emphasized their desire to reach out across ideological boundaries to unify the party.
"We have to include everyone, liberals, moderates and conservatives, in the development of policy," said Frost, the outgoing chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It is critical that we occupy the political middle as we head into this campaign in the year 2000."
Frost defeated Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.) 108 to 97 in the secret balloting for caucus chairman. Menendez beat Reps. Calvin M. Dooley (Calif.) and Albert R. Wynn (Md.) over two rounds of balloting for vice chairman; on the first ballot, Menendez garnered 92 votes while Dooley, a centrist, received 65 and Wynn, a liberal, got 50. Menendez defeated Dooley 124 to 81 on the second ballot.
Menendez, the first Hispanic from New Jersey in the House, touted his skills in unifying the caucus to protest the unsuccessful Republican challenge to Loretta Sanchez's 1996 election in California, reaching out to Latinos in key electoral states such as Texas and Florida.
"We're going to fight for the hearts, minds and votes of Americans of Hispanic descent in this country," he said. "So I look forward to being able to do that as well as to work with all the elements of the caucus to unify us around an agenda that brings us to a Democratic majority in 2000."
Gephardt will decide today who will replace Frost as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, aides said. Reps. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Patrick J. Kennedy (R.I.) and Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) have expressed interest.
At a news conference, Gephardt said that Democrats would present a more diverse front once they choose the entire leadership team today.
"We are the party of diversity," he said, noting that Democrats have many more African Americans, Hispanics and women in their caucus. "The Democratic Party has been the party that has taken on issues for women, for African Americans, for Hispanics, for Asians and for other minority groups in our society."
Gephardt also took note of the lesser evident friction among Democrats. "It is our unity that we believe can give us a leg up on our Republican counterparts as we head into the next Congress," Gephardt said. "And unlike the House Republicans, we haven't had to spend a great deal of time engaging in a post-election post-mortem of failed strategies. We haven't spent time papering over a gaping ideological divide within our caucus."
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