July 10, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

A Moderate Superstar Retires From the DLC

Correction Appended

After struggling to make it in the hardware business, Reubin From hit pay dirt in the early 1950s in suburban South Bend, Ind.

A local housing developer neglected to add garages to its tracts of pre-fabricated homes, a critical oversight in an area where winter temperatures frequently dip into negative digits.

So From — who arrived in America from what is now Poland as a boy in 1914 — started From Building Co., a small construction firm specializing in after-market garages to shelter the neighborhood’s countless Buicks, lawn mowers and other post-war suburban accouterments.

The entrepreneurial lesson was not lost on his young son, Al, who three decades later saw a similar opening in politics as a staffer to then-Democratic Caucus Chairman Gillis Long (La.).

In the mid-1980s, Democrats appeared to be on the brink of a permanent excursion into the political wild following Walter Mondale’s 49-state drubbing by incumbent President Ronald Reagan in 1984. From, along with moderate Democratic leaders, set out to erase the lingering scars of Lyndon Johnson’s and Jimmy Carter’s presidential administrations.

“We believed that if we came back with a set of ideas that moved the party back to the center, that connected with voters, that honored the principles of the Democratic Party and if we had good candidates, we could have people support us again,” From said in an interview with Roll Call.

After licking their wounds, moderate Democratic Sens. Sam Nunn (Ga.) and Lawton Chiles (Fla.), Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.), Virginia Gov. Chuck Robb and Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt set out to reclaim the party from liberals by enlisting From to head the Democratic Leadership Council, a Capitol Hill-based skunk works for moderate — or “new” — Democratic politics.

But nowadays, notes one observer, the DLC’s original ideas are “so baked into the cake” of the now-majority party, “it’s hard to say what [moderate] is.

“Al is one of the 20th century’s most successful political entrepreneurs. He really coalesced a faction within the Democratic Party and founded an institution that was well-suited to its strengths and then made real impact,” the source said. “The DNA of the New Democrats is embedded in the Democratic Party.”

Now, after what From calls “the equivalent of four Senate terms,” he is stepping down from the DLC this spring and passing the reins to his longtime No. 2, Bruce Reed, President Bill Clinton’s domestic policy adviser who co-authored a book with President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), himself a member of the House New Democrat Coalition, a moderate 68-member House centrist group.

“With Democrats in control of the White House and Congress — and with a majority of state Houses, as well — the majority of what we’ve tried to do, and what I wanted to do when I founded the DLC, has been completed,” From said. “I’ve spent a lifetime trying to drive change in the Democratic Party, and I look back and see that the DLC has achieved a lot of what I tried to do.”

But From’s departure also highlights the possible chaos, infighting and battle for relevancy that various left-of-center Democratic organizations — one-time From-affiliated groups that another observer called the “children of the DLC” — now face in a crowded marketplace.

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