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Larson Keeping His Options Open

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
As he waits out his political fate, Rep. John Larson (right) has become a force behind the Democrats’ jobs message and pushes the issue at every turn.

He said the focus on jobs is in part from lessons learned leading up to last year’s midterm elections, during which the lawmaker said his party was punished electorally because “we took our eye off the prize.”

Now, Larson said, “I think we’ve not so much done a mea culpa to the public, but we say, ‘OK, we heard you.’”

Larson was elected Caucus chairman in 2008, moving up from the vice chairmanship and succeeding former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). During his stint, Emanuel transformed the job into a messaging and policy power center and, like others before him, used the platform to cultivate strong relationships with his colleagues and prepare for a future leadership bid.

That day never came for Emanuel, who left the post to become Obama’s chief of staff and who is now mayor of Chicago. Before Emanuel, Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), now Assistant Minority Leader, had the chairmanship and maintained strong ties with Southern politicians and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Larson acknowledged that his position provides him a megaphone and close interaction with Members. Both his Democratic colleagues and Congressional aides note Larson’s affability, and a few encouraged him to run for Minority Leader last year in the event that Pelosi stepped down. Rep. Mike Doyle, who described himself as “definitely a big fan” of Larson’s, said he would encourage his colleague to continue climbing the leadership ladder.

“John has a future in the Caucus; there’s no doubt about that. He’s worked hard, he’s got a good message, he’s got great people skills,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. “I think he’s moving in the right direction, if everyone would just listen to him.”

Still, others note that despite Larson’s popularity, he lacks the fundraising prowess and gravitas to muscle into a top leadership spot or oust one of his sitting colleagues in a head-to-head matchup. There’s also a cadre of younger Members, including Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who are widely perceived to have designs on leadership offices, particularly if Democrats take the majority.

“He just doesn’t have the confidence of the Caucus to lead it,” the Democratic strategist suggested. “He can be Caucus chairman, and I think that’s a position that suits his strengths. But the problem is, he’s viewed in the Caucus as someone who provides some spirit, but no one views him as a big thinker, as a strategist.”

Larson’s strategy for the rest of the year, and going into next year, is to keep pushing for Obama’s jobs plan and hitting Republicans on the issue. And as the parlor game of guessing what’s to come after 2012 starts to heat up, Larson has promised to tamp it down.

“I think there’s always buzz. We have 435 Members. That means 435 people who were student council president and believe they can be Speaker of the House or president of the United States,” Larson said.

As for himself, the one-time East Hartford councilman quipped: “I’m running for mayor of Hartford.”

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