Deja Vu All Over Again at DCCC

Posted February 14, 2003 at 5:56pm

Hoping to draw on the collective wisdom of his predecessors, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) has installed the last three heads of the organization as chairmen ex officio for the 2004 cycle.

Reps. Nita Lowey (N.Y.), Patrick Kennedy (R.I.) and Martin Frost (Texas) will serve as advisers to Matsui as he tries to lead his party through the murk of new campaign finance laws and diminished expectations among his colleagues.

“I went to [Lowey, Kennedy and Frost] and said it would be tremendous if you would lend your experience to the DCCC,” Matsui said in an interview Friday. Although past chairmen have served as unofficial advisers, Matsui said he “wanted to put it in a way that it would be formalized.”

Frost led the DCCC in the 1996 and 1998 cycles; Kennedy in 2000 and Lowey in 2002. Democrats picked up seats from 1996 to 2000 but lost six in the last election.

Frost described his new role as a “sounding board” for the California Congressman.

“We talk on a regular basis, and I have tried to give him suggestions,” Frost said.

Lowey said that she had emphasized to Matsui the importance of adopting a “clear message and carrying that message to the American people.”

Frost added that he and Matsui are “old friends” and came to Congress in the same 1978 class that spawned five of the past seven DCCC chairmen. Former Reps. Tony Coelho (Calif.), Vic Fazio (Calif.), and Beryl Anthony (Ark.) were elected in 1978 as well.

The key role Frost, Lowey and Kennedy will play at the committee will be as leading fundraisers in the Democrats’ uphill battle to stay competitive in the all-hard-money world created by the new Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, knowledgeable Democratic sources said.

“I am happy to do my part,” Lowey said about her fundraising commitment. “I will play an active role in raising funds in New York this cycle.”

In the 2002 elections, House Republicans raised roughly $110 million in hard money compared to $41 million for the DCCC.

Presented with those rather daunting numbers, Frost said “the challenge is enormous” to stay financially competitive; Lowey deemed it a “very difficult effort.”

In addition to the past DCCC chairs, Matsui has drafted another handful of Members who will work with him to increase the committee’s hard-money take and also serve as his kitchen cabinet for the next 21 months.

The overall composition of his Member team was an attempt to “reflect the entirety of the Democratic Caucus,” he said.

The picks also struck a solid balance between allies of new Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and her political opponents.

Reps. Ed Markey (Mass.), Charlie Gonzalez (Texas), Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.), Kendrick Meek (Fla.) and Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) will serve as DCCC vice chairmen.

Both Meek and Emanuel were elected in 2002.

“Kendrick is a comer,” said Matsui, who pointed out that the Meek raised more than $350,000 for the party during the last election.

Meek’s largess was made possible because he had no primary or general election opponent in the open-seat race to succeed his mother, Rep. Carrie Meek (D).

[IMGCAP(1)] Since winning his primary in the heavily Democratic 5th district, which was once held by legendary Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D), Emanuel has been seen as an immediate-impact freshman. Because of his work for the DCCC as political director under Anthony and as a senior adviser to former President Bill Clinton, Emanuel “has a national fundraising base,” according to Matsui.

“We have never done as well [in fundraising] in Chicago as we should,” Frost added. “Rahm will remedy that problem.”

Mixing old bulls with new blood, Matsui has installed Rep. John Dingell (Mich.) as head of the Chairman’s Council, a fundraising group made up of the ranking members from each House committee, and Rep. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) as the chairman of the DCCC board of directors. Both men held those same positions during the 2002 cycle and their support was considered essential to Matsui’s chances of success at the committee.

Another returnee from the 2002 team is Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), who will again chair the “Women LEAD” program that helped raise an estimated $25 million for the DCCC from the women’s community.

In addition, Rep. Mike Thompson (Calif.) will lead the DCCC Business Council, a new entity created by Matsui, which he hopes will improve relations with and increase funding from this financially well-stocked sector.

Perhaps the most interesting of Matsui’s recruits is Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), who is charged with recruiting candidates and evaluating districts that the committee should target.

“Candidate recruitment and district [analysis] have to go hand in glove,” explained Matsui.

A noted political animal, Gordon created the current direct-mail fundraising program used at the DCCC while he was Tennessee state party chairman in the early 1980s, Frost said.

“[Gordon] is the one person I have known over the years who has the in-depth knowledge of Congressional districts all over the United States,” said Matsui.

Gordon’s understanding of competitive, swing districts also made him an appealing choice, Matsui added.

Gordon has regularly won re-election in a competitive middle Tennessee district that would have given George W. Bush (R) a majority of the vote in the 2000 election. Gordon survived a political near-death experience when he won only 51 percent in 1994.

In past cycles, Democratic Members in marginal districts complained that they did not have a strong enough voice representing their interests at the committee.

Matsui said that Gordon’s experiences as a perennially targeted incumbent makes him a more effective recruiter of candidates pondering races in tough districts that Democrats must win if they hope to pick up the 12 seats necessary to return to the majority.

“Bart can sit down with a potential candidate and have a far greater sensitivity [to their concerns] than someone in a safe district that gets 70 percent of the vote,” Matsui said.