In the summer of 2000, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley appeared on the cover of the Democratic Leadership Council’s magazine. A decade later, O’Malley was re-elected to a second term as governor of Maryland and is the new chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.
O’Malley was one of the “100 new Democrats who are changing the face of the party” highlighted by the DLC more than 10 years ago.
Some of these “new Democrats” have made their mark over the last 10 years but not in the way folks inside the Beltway might think. The state and local officials on the centrist group’s list have gravitated toward executive positions rather than legislative offices over the last decade. And only a few of them have landed in jail.
DLC officials considered the “100 to watch” list to be an effort to find the next generation of leaders in the Democratic Party to carry on the legacy of “Clintonism,” DLC co-founder Al From said. He admits there were a few “wrong guesses.”
From told Roll Call in a recent interview that their “new Democrat philosophy is more attuned to governing and less attuned to taking a position.”
“A lot of stars chose to go into the executive arena because they thought they could get more done,” he said.
For example, then-state Treasurer Jack Markell also made the list before he became Delaware’s governor and chairman of the DGA. O’Malley and Markell are two of eight Democrats on the list to be elected governor since its publication.
Then-Attorney General Mike Easley served two terms as governor of North Carolina while then-state Treasurer Bob Holden was elected governor of Missouri but lost re-election in the Democratic primary to future Sen. Claire McCaskill.
Arizona’s Janet Napolitano, Kansas’ Kathleen Sebelius and New York’s Eliot Spitzer also ascended to the governorship in the past 10 years while longtime Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy was just elected governor of Connecticut.
Now, Napolitano and Sebelius have national influence as part of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet along with United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who made the list when he was the mayor of Dallas. Former state legislators Chris Cummiskey in Arizona and Antonio Riley in Wisconsin appeared on the top 100 list and also served in the Obama administration.
Another dozen Democrats on the list ran for governor unsuccessfully including Georgia’s Thurbert Baker, California’s Phil Angelides, Alaska’s Ethan Berkowitz, Oregon’s Bill Bradbury, Maryland’s Doug Duncan, Oklahoma’s Drew Edmondson, Illinois’ Dan Hynes, New York’s Carl McCall, Kentucky’s Jonathan Miller, Georgia’s Mark Taylor and Maryland’s Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom ended a brief flirtation with a gubernatorial bid in California last fall, but he ran for lieutenant governor instead. He won and will be headed to Sacramento to serve in that position in January.
Townsend re-emerged recently as head of a new Democratic group, American Bridge, which is meant to counter the rise of cash-fueled outside Republican groups. It won’t be a surprise if Newsom, Kentucky Finance Secretary Jonathan Miller and Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler govern their states one day.
“It’s an unusual and exciting collection of political talent and a lot of them have contributed an awful lot to this country,” From said.
But what’s striking about the list is the dearth of individuals who have succeeded to the halls of Congress.
Of the 100 rising stars from a decade ago, only two are Members (California Reps. Adam Schiff and Susan Davis) and two are Senators (Arkansas’ Mark Pryor of and Florida’s Bill Nelson, who faces a challenging re-election race in 2012).
A handful of new Democrats from the DLC’s 2003 list of “100 to watch” made it to the Capitol, including Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), Ben Chandler (Ky.), Allyson Schwartz (Pa.), Chris Coons (Del.), Ken Salazar (Colo.) and even Obama, who was just a state Senator from Illinois at the time.
But the road is littered with unsuccessful Senate and Congressional candidates from the original list including Berkowitz, Bradbury, Hynes, Georgia’s Michael Thurmond, Ohio’s Eric Fingerhut, Illinois’ Lauren Beth Gash, Colorado’s Bob Hagedorn, Washington’s Laura Ruderman and Florida’s Linda Chapin.
Then-Clark County Commissioner Dario Herrera also made the “100 to watch” list and ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2002 in the newly created 3rd district of Nevada, but he ran into bigger problems. The rising Democratic star was convicted of 17 counts of corruption charges in a strip club scandal and spent a couple years in prison.
Herrera isn’t the only rising star to face legal trouble.
Then-state Rep. Kwame Kilpatrick went on to become the youngest mayor in the history of Detroit, earning brief fame. His star faded considerably when he was convicted on an array of charges related to sexually charged text messaging with an employee. Kilpatrick is in federal prison in Michigan.
Spitzer resigned from the governorship after a prostitution scandal, but he was never officially charged or convicted of anything and now co-hosts a show on CNN. Easley, the former North Carolina governor, just pleaded guilty to a felony charge related to a campaign finance report. He’ll likely pay a fine and won’t be incarcerated.
“We made some good guesses and some wrong guesses,” said From, who is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations at the DLC. But, overall, he looked back at the list with some pride, even though less than half of the 100 will hold any elected office next year.
With the conservative Blue Dog Coalition facing depleted numbers in the new Congress following the Republican wave election and with liberal groups getting most of the publicity for putting pressure on Obama, it’s unclear what role new Democrats will play in the party.
“For us to come back, we have to do better with independent voters. It’s not that complicated,” From explained, “If the president governs to the center, you’ll see a revival of this kind of politics.”