A 12-Day Blitz for the No. 2 Spot
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 1998; Page G1
His office looks like it's hosting a fifth-grade sleepover. Crowding the coffee table are a jumbo sack of M&M's, an 80-ounce bag of animal crackers, a package of malted milk balls and a jar of Raisinets.
But don't be fooled. Room 426 of the Cannon House Office Building is not just wired with sugar. It is the strategic hub for Steve Largent's latest ambition. The handsome Pro Football Hall of Famer, who's been in politics all of four years, is now trying to rise from a junior Oklahoma congressman to second-in-command of the House.
You can stump all over metropolitan Tulsa and rack up 91,031 votes, as Largent did in cruising to reelection last week. But nothing prepares you for this crazy 12-day campaign to win over 112 of your Republican peers. That's all it takes to knock off incumbent House Majority Leader Dick Armey. Just 112 measly votes. But man, it's difficult. And Largent is not a big-fish committee chairman. And the vote is Wednesday.
"One thing I was unprepared for is how hard it is to reach members," says Largent during a three-minute interview about this marathon. "They are spread all over the globe."
Then he's back to the phones. With members on foreign junkets or post-election respites, the telephone is king. For 13 hours a day, Steve Largent is captive to the wonders and limitations of modern communications. He listens, flatters and tries to convince one colleague at a time that he should be their leader, the guy responsible for determining when bills are considered and votes scheduled, the caretaker of the Republicans' legislative strategy.
He called Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) three times. "One time," says Shays, "he called for advice. One time to tell me he's in the race. And another time to see if he could make the sale. He got a partial commitment out of me."
Largent takes a seat at his desk, where his call sheets are strategically arranged so he will know when he phones which way a member is leaning, or what the member's concerns are. "The only time he's off the phone is when he's doing interviews and when he's eating," says Terry Allen, Largent's wiry chief of staff, who's directing the vote patrol.
Largent's got a system and he's got a lot of help. Twenty-six of his backers in Congress have signed up to dial for votes. Every night they dial into a conference call from wherever they are – Arizona, Ohio, California, New York. They are Largent's "whip team," and they are working this little in-House election like it'll decide the fate of the Republic. Who knows? Maybe it will. One Largent whip contacted colleagues while on a family vacation in Bermuda. Another whip tracked down a member in Argentina. Whatever it takes. In this game, relationships are important. But speed is paramount.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who formerly held the seat Largent occupies and has maintained his House contacts, phoned in a status report from a hospital delivery room in Fayetteville, Ark.
"He said, 'Hold on, my daughter just gave birth,'‚" recounts Allen. "I said, 'I'll call you back.' He said, 'No, I'll go down to my car and get my list.' This guy is a political animal. That's hard-core commitment."
Whatever it takes.
When the whips call in to Room 426, they talk to Allen. Then Largent aide Craig Richardson logs their field reports onto a computer spreadsheet. Members are ranked – (1) a hard commitment to Largent, (2) leaning toward Largent, (3) undecided, (4) leaning toward Armey (R-Tex.) or Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), the other contender for the prize, (5) locked in solid for Armey or Dunn.
"Then we ask for seconds," says Allen.
He's not talking about mashed potatoes. If one of the candidates fails on the first try to win a majority of the 223 House Republicans when they gather Wednesday, there will be a runoff – a second ballot among the top two finishers. In essence, a new game. So, maybe a Dunn supporter is willing to vote for Largent if Dunn is weeded out on the first ballot.
"It's very strategic," says Allen.
But hard to handicap.
"I've never done anything like this, so I don't know," says Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), one of Largent's whips and like him a member of the 1994 class of revolutionaries. "This is a place where people make commitments and don't keep them."
Or they make multiple commitments or non-commitments disguised as commitments. After all, voting is done by secret ballot. So who's going to really know? "If you add up all the commitments right now," quips John Pitney Jr., a Claremont McKenna College professor who has studied the Republican leadership, "I'll bet there are 500 Republicans in the House."
There are 50 to 60 fence-sitters, Coburn estimates, people who are waiting to see which way the momentum breaks so they can latch onto the victor. Coburn doesn't have much regard for these members.
"If they don't want to commit until they see who the winner is, what does that say about the person?"
Having said that, Coburn adds that he believes Largent's commitments are solid.
They all think their commitments are solid. Which is why Armey says he has locked up 100 members. Which is why Dunn says she's ahead of Largent and gaining on Armey. Which is why Largent says he is ahead of Armey with Dunn trailing.
They can't all be right.
The blunt-spoken Zach Wamp, House member from Tennessee and a Largent whip, is prepared to set the record straight: As of yesterday morning, Armey and Largent were neck-and-neck with 60-something votes each, with 40 members undecided and 36 unreachable.
"And that's a real, honest, fair assessment," Wamp says.
You can tell Republicans are hyped up about this race. The last time they had a major leadership shootout was in 1989, when a young gunslinger from Georgia named Newt Gingrich defeated Rep. Edward Madigan of Illinois by two votes to become the second-ranking House Republican.
"We didn't have cell phones then," recalls Rep. Chris Cox (R-Calif.). They didn't have digital pager/answering machine/e-mail readers in their hip pockets while in Tashkent. "It's now possible to reach people all over the world."
Cox made an abortive run at the speakership Gingrich is vacating, but quickly learned that Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston had already jumped out to such a big lead that it was not worth the bloodshed. Still, the exercise was instructive, he says. Between last Friday night and Monday morning, he and his team placed more than 200 phone calls, reaching two members at parades, one fishing, one washing his car, one in Spain.
"It is a very useful education to talk to so many members of Congress all at once," says Cox. "It reminds one of the day-in-the-life photo books. Everyone's sharing a piece of reality. You're getting it from a lot of different angles."
Leadership races are all the same in some respects. They are not about the public, but about a complex set of internal dynamics. There is almost a formula for running these campaigns. It doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or Republican.
House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.) explains:
"All this is is calling. You get a claque of people who are really going to work hard for you. You work different sections of the party – by region, by ideology. You try to get the deans of delegations to commit. You try to get the committee chairs to help because they have the ability to influence people. You work the friendship piece of it. Baseball, golf, maybe you play basketball with a guy down at the House gym. It's not unusual for those type of relationships to bypass other relationships. This is an inside game."
It matters if you've campaigned and raised money for other members. (Largent has.) It helps if you know members' spouses – or at least their names. You should probably be in Washington because members dribble into town and maybe you can meet with them face to face.
"All of those interpersonal things you use in everyday life are important," says Bonior. "You just have to be persistent."
Football, Church, Family
In 14 seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, Steve Largent set six career records, hauling down passes in traffic with those soft hands. He displayed a fearlessness on the field that would ultimately aid him in politics.
"How many wide receivers block defensive ends and linebackers in short-yardage situations?" says Jim Zorn, Largent's quarterback for eight years. "He wanted to be in there. He was 185 pounds and sometimes he got waylaid. But he was in there fighting and scratching."
Largent was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995, his first year in Congress. And though Gingrich had penciled him in as a rising GOP star with telegenic power, Largent and other restless conservatives from his class soon became a pain in the leadership's hide.
After 11 GOP conservatives helped Democrats derail a spending bill last year, Gingrich didn't contain his displeasure. In a closed-door meeting, he asked the group to explain itself. Largent was the first to jump up.
"You can't intimidate me," he told Gingrich. "I've had linebackers who wanted to kill me."
The story became part of Largent's lore in the House. Largent was among the core group of rebels who tried to overthrow Gingrich last year but failed.
Among his peers, he is viewed politically as a dedicated right-winger. He adamantly opposes abortion and once denounced same-sex marriages on the House floor by saying: "No culture that has ever embraced homosexuality has survived."
But while in Washington, Largent has carved out some relationships across ideological boundaries. He shares a house with two Democrats and two Republicans on the Hill. Sometimes the conversations with his roomies – about the trials of raising teenagers, for instance – are a refreshing break from the warfare at the Capitol.
"He seems a lot more open to ideas than some of his colleagues in that class," says Rep. Michael Doyle (D-Pa.), one of his roommates. "Politics isn't his life. It isn't like this makes or breaks him. A lot of it may have to do with the tough upbringing he had in his life."
Largent, 44, grew up poor in a suburb of Oklahoma City, abandoned by his father when he was a boy. His mother remarried an alcoholic who didn't treat her right. His wife of 23 years, his four children and his faith filled the void in Largent's life. In Congress he has become one of the leading Christian conservatives.
"Steve's family is at the center of his life," says Doyle. "If he doesn't get the votes to be majority leader, his life is not going to change."
"I think leadership is more than just being able to cross the t's and dot the i's," says Largent. "It's about character and integrity and work ethic."
Spin to Win
Largent has been all over the airwaves and in the papers. He has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying of Armey, "Nobody trusts the leader." And he noted to the Washington Times that as many as 12 members in the last four years had wound up divorced because of the family-unfriendly schedule Armey had set.
Largent is "engaged in a kind of public campaign that hurts you in a member-to-member race," says a GOP leadership source sympathetic to Armey. "Negative campaigns don't work in a leadership race. This is a gentleman's campaign. You don't get into the weeds here. You run your campaign and tell people why you should be majority leader."
Which is what Largent insists that he's doing. "I'm not running against Dick Armey. I'm running for majority leader," he says.
But blunt-spoken Zach Wamp isn't even considering keeping a low profile. He says he plans to do all the interviews he can and be all over the TV screen this weekend.
"We live in the world of spin," he says. "Bill Clinton's absolute proof of that. If you spin the best, you are the best. Do you participate in that or do you shun it and end up in second place?"
Wamp is trying to help his man win.
"Like this business of Armey having 100 votes – if you don't get out there and counteract that, the spin prevails. In this business, until the last breath is breathed, it's not over."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company