A few days before he was sworn in to represent Maryland's 8th District, Rep. Chris Van Hollen sounded confident, even cocky, about having an impact as a freshman Democrat in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.
"I've been a backbencher before," Van Hollen (D) said in early 2003. "I know how to wage battles from the back row."
Six sobering months later, he understood what he was up against. The 12-year veteran of a Democrat-controlled state legislature had devolved into the weakest form of political life.
"You sort of knew academically what it's like to live in the minority," Van Hollen, 45, told the New Republic. "But it's another thing to live it."
In the months that followed, however, Van Hollen found his way, according to friends and colleagues, even outmaneuvering the Republican leadership on occasion.
"He's figured out how to ambush them," said Rep. George Miller (Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, on which Van Hollen serves.
He surprised the Bush administration last fall by securing passage of an amendment that stymied plans for more federal workers to compete with the private sector for jobs.
In July, Van Hollen joined with Republican Jeff Flake (Ariz.) to help pass an amendment prohibiting the use of federal funds for a $10 billion buyout of tobacco farmers. A House-Senate conference committee agreed to make the tobacco companies pay.
And last month, he helped expose a loophole that gave lenders more than $1 billion earmarked for student loans. The House and Senate voted to stop the practice.
"It's a difficult political environment," Van Hollen said in an interview. "It means you've got to sort of refocus your strategy."
At first, Van Hollen's zeal irritated Republican colleagues.
"Initially, he would come up with a lot of surprise motions, and I said, 'Chris, that is not the way things work here,' " said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.
Despite the achievements, Van Hollen's minority status is a rallying point for Republicans in the 8th District, which includes half of Montgomery and a small part of Prince George's County.
Republican challenger Charles R. Floyd, a retired military officer and former Bush administration official, argues that Van Hollen is too liberal to be effective in a Republican-led Congress.
"He has no clout in Congress because he is too partisan and no one will work with him, " Floyd said.
In 2002, Van Hollen urged voters in the heavily Democratic 8th to retire eight-term incumbent Constance A. Morella (R) to help Democrats regain control of the House. But Van Hollen, the son of a former ambassador, was one of only two Democrats to defeat an incumbent House Republican, ensuring continued GOP control.
Steve Abrams, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, said Van Hollen "does not stack up real well" against Morella, who he says was more visible and secured more money for the district.
Davis, who represents parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties, called Van Hollen "a smart, solid guy" but said he doesn't have much influence on the Hill.
Van Hollen cites several accomplishments that he says benefit his district.
The House transportation bill, which must be reconciled with a Senate version, includes $9 million for the proposed intercounty connector and $10 million for other Montgomery highway projects. Van Hollen says he also pushed for more homeland security funding.
Before entering Congress, Van Hollen served 12 years in the Maryland General Assembly, first in the House of Delegates, then the Senate. He built a portfolio as a progressive Democrat willing to take on party leaders for new environmental protections and stricter gun and tobacco control efforts. He also helped champion passage of the state's $1.3 billion Thornton education funding plan.
But Van Hollen, reclusive by nature, never connected with the good old boy network in Annapolis. He carried that reserve with him to Congress.
Although Maryland's other freshman member of Congress, former Baltimore County executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D), is known for his fraternizing skills, Van Hollen has trouble naming more than a few other members he considers good friends.
"Chris is the more scholarly, studious, homework guy who knows the intricacies of the bill. But when it comes time to get a bill passed on the floor, he will turn to a Ruppersberger-type to get the votes," said Steve Jost, Van Hollen's 2002 campaign manager and now Ruppersberger's chief of staff.
Montgomery leaders say Van Hollen, who has three children ages 9 to 15, attends community and political events but often leaves early to return to his Kensington home.
Although Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D) is a major power broker in Prince George's County, Van Hollen rarely intervenes in Montgomery politics.
"I don't think Chris is trying to shape the Democratic Party in his image," said Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), president of the Montgomery County Council.
Yet Van Hollen's stature in the local party remains solid, giving him a significant base in a district where Democrats hold a 2 to 1 registration advantage.
"The fact nobody challenged Chris in the primary from Montgomery County, where there are many ambitious politicians, is a sign to me of his strength," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler (D).
Van Hollen's stock soared among some Democrats last year with his early criticism of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. "I do think the country has moved closer to the position I articulated and my concerns," Van Hollen said.
On most issues, Van Hollen usually sticks with the party leadership, including opposition to Bush's tax cuts. His positions have earned him endorsements from a range of abortion-rights, environmental and labor groups.
While Floyd frequently says Van Hollen "is too liberal even for Montgomery County," the incumbent doesn't try to run from the label. "I think my principles reflect the values and priorities of the community," Van Hollen said.
Van Hollen is a prolific fundraiser and has banked about $1.5 million over the past two years. More than two-thirds of donations came from individuals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
As of Oct. 1, Van Hollen had $800,000 on hand, fueling speculation that he is considering an eventual U.S. Senate run. He dismisses such talk.
Van Hollen will have to continue to pick his battles if the GOP stays in control.
A few months ago, he went to Miller during a hearing and said he wanted to fight to restore money to a particular education program. Miller responded that it wasn't the right time to provoke the GOP.
Van Hollen shrugged, slumped back into his chair and said: "All right. We'll catch 'em next time."
Tomorrow: Republican challenger Charles R. Floyd.