Rep. Rahm Emanuel didn’t engineer the House Democrats’ 2006 victory by making a lot of friends. On the way to gaining the majority, the prickly Chicagoan alienated some fellow Democrats, including a good many members of the black and Hispanic caucuses.
Now his successor as Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), is repairing relations and proving, he hopes, that Democrats can both win elections and get along. Van Hollen has approached the black and Hispanic caucuses with the idea of creating outreach panels to open lines of communication early in the election cycle. The Congressional Black Caucus has accepted the offer and organized the panel. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus plans to do so as well.
Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), who now chairs the CBC’s outreach group with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), said Van Hollen’s overture was a welcome reprieve from the animosity of previous cycles.
“This is one indication that they value our input and expertise,” Rush said. “We didn’t see it last cycle. This is a fresh opportunity for us to put the last cycle behind us.”
The last cycle represented something of a low point in relations between the DCCC and the two caucuses. At one point, then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) had to step in to mediate between Emanuel and the Congressional Black Caucus. Many lawmakers bristled at Emanuel’s confrontational style. Others reiterated concerns stretching back years: that the campaign committee rarely sought their input, called on them only at the last moment to help drive voters to the polls, hired too few minority consultants and did not spend money in ways that would invigorate minority voters.
The Hispanic caucus echoed those concerns. Most members of the caucus protested a perceived dearth of minority staff members at the DCCC by withholding millions in political contributions.
Emanuel had little patience for such protests.
“You know that every chairman has faced the same criticism?” he is quoted as saying in the recent book “The Thumpin’: How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution.” “Okay. So I don't give a fuck. ... As I said to them, Blue Dogs [conservative Democrats], they hate me too because I’m arrogant and pushy with them. I’m an equal-opportunity prick to everybody. Because they’ve never, ever worked! Nobody! None of ’em!"
Van Hollen, placid and polished, doesn’t plan on waging the same battles. He believes a collaborative approach can be more effective.
“Based on past campaigns I’ve been involved in, I knew the importance of trying to get everyone engaged, everyone energized,” he said.
Democrats have admitted that better turnout in minority precincts would have helped them beat GOP Reps. Steve Chabot of Ohio and Christopher Shays of Connecticut last year.
Van Hollen said that although the outreach panels do not have a designated budget, they will be a key component of turnout and messaging efforts in some districts.
“We’ll be focusing on the battleground congressional districts and making sure the issues and concerns of a broad array of people are addressed,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re very involved in the grass-roots field operation.
Rush said his panel would help with turnout but that its primary mission was to determine whether certain representatives “passed the CBC smell test.”
“We’ll be looking at places where the member continues to vote against the interests of the CBC and developing a mechanism to alert individuals about their representative’s voting record,” Rush said. “Some instances, we’ll agree with the DCCC. In some instances, we might not agree with them. At some oint the DCCC friends might not be our friends.”
That approach could ultimately create headaches for Van Hollen. Many of the DCCC’s most vulnerable incumbents are conservative Democrats whose full voting record surely would not meet with overwhelming approval from much of the black caucus. Although the caucus does have moderate members, most are urban liberals. Lee is co-chairman of the House’s liberal voting bloc, the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Yet with Democrats now in the majority, Van Hollen’s outreach effort was shrewd, said a Democratic strategist with close ties to the CBC. Many Latino and African-American lawmakers now hold powerful committee posts, raising their national clout.
“The difference is the majority,” the strategist said. “The majority means that Van Hollen has to figure out how to expand a majority. He’s basically saying, I’m going to use all the tools in my tool belt early.”