Just weeks after securing her party's top post, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faces an important choice in deciding who will be chairman of the party's House campaign arm. The decision will help determine how or whether the party can recover from its disappointing midterm election results.
House Democrats need to tap an adept fundraiser and campaign strategist for the 2004 elections, at a time when they have less power on Capitol Hill and must comply with more stringent campaign finance rules. Four possible candidates have emerged to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: Reps. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Martin Frost (Tex.), William J. Jefferson (La.) and Mike Thompson (Calif.).
Tony Coehlo, who was chairman of the DCCC in the early 1980s, compared Pelosi's challenge to the one Democrats faced in 1981 after Ronald Reagan's landslide. "It will determine her success, to some extent," Coehlo said. "What they need is somebody that strategically understands politics."
Republicans have elected Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (N.Y.) and Sen. George Allen (Va.) to head their House and Senate campaign committees, respectively, and Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.) is expected to be chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Among House Democrats, however, more members appear to be shunning the post than seeking it. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) has turned down an overture, and spokesmen for Brown and Frost said they were not actively seeking the job.
"This would be the toughest time in the history of the House Democratic Caucus to take this assignment," said Vic Fazio, who was chairman of the committee during the 1994 election cycle.
Jefferson, a 12-year House veteran, is aggressively pushing for the post. The Congressional Black Caucus sent a letter to Pelosi this month touting Jefferson's fundraising skills and moderate record on fiscal issues. The lawmaker's support for free trade, however, may anger labor leaders who provide crucial contributions and grass-roots support for Democrats.
Thompson, a third-term lawmaker from California wine country, is a close Pelosi ally. But some Democrats speculate that his trip to Iraq this fall, shortly before Congress voted to authorize military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, could hurt Thompson's chances.
Although Frost has not pushed publicly for the job, several lawmakers said he would be best qualified to raise money now that the new campaign finance law bans the unlimited donations that corporations, unions and individuals formerly gave to the national parties. Frost, who was DCCC chairman in 1996 and 1998, warned that the law would hurt Democrats, even though he eventually voted for the measure.
Incoming Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Frost "has more knowledge and experience on [fundraising] than anyone in this caucus and more focus than anyone in this caucus." Hoyer said he had urged Pelosi to appoint Frost, who briefly challenged her for the role of party leader.
Some Democrats say Brown, a vocal liberal with health care expertise who had lobbied for the post in the past, would do well as DCCC chairman. But spokesman Ted Miller said his boss had not asked for the appointment.