Kerry Looks to His Backyard for Support

Posted February 7, 2003 at 5:59pm

Seeking to mend fences at home even as he launches a full-blown campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. John Kerry (D) has asked members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation to help him shape his national strategy.

Officeholders who seek the presidency can generally count on the backing of their home-state Members, but Kerry has not always enjoyed strong relations with his Bay State colleagues, who have complained in the past about the difficulty of working with his office. But last week, Kerry invited the 11 Massachusetts Members to his Georgetown home to discuss strategy and asked them to become intimately involved in his presidential campaign.

The charm offensive may be particularly important for Kerry given that former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) is making an aggressive pitch to win his House colleagues’ backing for his own presidential effort.

“We were asked and we all gave advice on the big policy questions,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D). “I think all of us appreciate the courtesy of him asking us down to outline his strategy.”

Nine of the 11 Members attended the meeting, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the dean of the delegation, helped to lead a “wide-ranging” talk, participants said. Among the topics discussed at the Tuesday night meeting was what Kerry needed to do to gain the nomination and what strategy he would need to employ to defeat President Bush.

Reps. Bill Delahunt (D) and John Olver (D) were unable to attend the meeting.

Armed with the latest Iowa primary poll, which showed him leading Gephardt by 1 point in the first caucus state, Kerry told the Massachusetts Members he expected to show strong fundraising numbers in the next reporting period. He posted more than $3 million in the bank at the end of last year, about $600,000 more than what Gephardt, his closest competitor in the money chase, reported.

But Kerry did not lean on his Massachusetts colleagues to help him raise money for his campaign. Instead, Kerry indicated he would appreciate their help in serving as surrogates on the rubber chicken circuit in the coming months and helping him to attract grassroots supporters. The latter could be particularly critical to Kerry’s chances, as many of the Bay State Members have an appeal to left-leaning activists.

“John Kerry wanted to bring the delegation together to thank them for their friendship and to solicit their insight and counsel as he moves ahead with a national campaign,” said David Wade, Kerry’s spokesman. “Massachusetts is blessed with the best delegation in Congress, and you always want to enter battle among the battle-tested.”

Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), a former ironworker, said there is talk about having each “delegation member assign a person to work with Kerry’s organization to try and make sure that we are as helpful as possible.”

While he is a relative newcomer to Congress — Lynch was elected to replace the late Democratic Rep. Joe Moakley in 2001 — the most junior member of the delegation is likely to play an important role in Kerry’s campaign. Lynch has strong ties to organized labor and worked as an organizer in Iowa, New Hampshire and West Virginia for former Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 campaign.

“I think I can do a lot, especially with the building-trades unions,” Lynch said. “I think that people want to be convinced that … he is the right candidate and he has a strong chance to win.”

Lynch acknowledged that Kerry has some work to do in wooing organized labor, a group Gephardt is counting on heavily for backing.

“While his policies with labor have been favorable, I think he has work to do to build his relationships with the rank and file that he needs in order to get the grassroots support that any candidate would need to win,” Lynch said.

Lynch said part of the discussion Tuesday night was about neutralizing Gephardt’s support with labor, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire.

“[Gephardt] is actively recruiting people and lobbying different organizations and unions in New Hampshire and we talked about that and the need for John to personally ask those labor leaders to sit down and hear what he has to say,” Lynch said. “I think [Kerry] has the right message, he just needs to make those connections.”

Kerry got a boost last week in his quest to win over labor when Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Kerry was the best Democratic candidate to take on Bush.

It also appears Kerry is successfully repairing the fractured relationships that developed over the years with his Massachusetts colleagues. In the past, many Massachusetts Members preferred to work directly with Kennedy and spoke openly about their frustrations to The Boston Globe in a 1997 report.

“There is a general impression in the delegation that Kennedy is the guy to go to, but I think Kerry is working hard to change that,” said an aide to a Massachusetts Democrat.

Kerry overcame perhaps his biggest obstacle in receiving support from his Massachusetts colleagues when Kennedy publicly voiced support in January for Kerry’s presidential bid.

Kennedy initially declined to openly back Kerry, and there was speculation that Massachusetts’ liberal lion would support Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) for the nomination.

“People were kind of hedging, but when Kennedy made those comments at the [National] Press Club, it took a big weight off of people’s backs,” said a Massachusetts Democrat, who asked not to be named.

Now it appears every Member of the Bay State delegation will support their home-state Senator.

“You always have to solidify your base and there cannot be any crack in that,” said Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.). “I can’t imagine there would be any dissent in the Massachusetts delegation. I would be surprised if everybody was not on board.”

Kerry is not the only Member eyeing the White House who is making sure he has the support of his home-state colleagues.

Earlier this month, Gephardt released a list of honorary co-chairmen for his presidential exploratory committee which included among others the three other Democratic members of Missouri’s Congressional delegation and former Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.).

Edwards invited the six Democratic Members of the North Carolina delegation to his house in January, when he told friends and supporters he was opening an exploratory committee.

“He told us then he was launching his campaign,” said freshman Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.). “I would call that an effort to reach out.”

With Connecticut’s two Democratic Senators both considering a race, Reps. Rosa DeLauro and John Larson have not yet endorsed a candidate in the presidential primary. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), the 2000 vice presidential nominee, has opened an exploratory committee, and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) continues to weigh his own options.

While Gephardt has an edge on winning the endorsements of many House Democrats, McGovern said he expects Kerry to do well in the endorsement game.

“I speak to colleagues on the House floor, from liberal Democrats to conservative Democrats, who all have a very positive impression of him,” McGovern said. “I mean that in no disrespect to Dick Gephardt, who I think was a very effective Democratic leader, but in the presidential game, you only get to pick one person and in my opinion John Kerry would be the most effective and most formidable candidate against George Bush.”