Clark Works to Build Hill Ties

Posted September 30, 2003 at 6:50pm

Key Capitol Hill supporters of Wesley Clark’s (D) presidential campaign said Tuesday that the retired general is reaching out to lawmakers in hopes of avoiding the pitfalls encountered by the past two Democratic presidents in the early days of their administrations.

Clark visited Capitol Hill Tuesday for the first time since officially entering the presidential race and met with roughly 65 Members —including the 10 House Democrats who have backed him — to tout his fledgling candidacy. And according to one of his most prominent backers on Capitol Hill, Clark has allowed himself to look beyond planning for next year’s primaries and general election long enough to at least briefly ponder something else: his governing strategy.

“The big mistake that [Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter] made was that they didn’t build relationships with the Hill,” said Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.). “General Clark wanted to begin building that relationship now.”

Carter, a Georgia governor elected as a fresh face in the post-Watergate years, started off on the wrong foot with legislators and eventually faced a primary challenge from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) when he sought a second term in 1980.

Similarly, Clinton was elected as an outsider in 1992, but due to his unfamiliarity with the inner workings of Capitol Hill, he alienated some leaders with liberal initiatives and overreached on major legislative proposals — most notably his health care package — despite the fact that Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. Voters swept Democrats from majorities in the House and Senate in the 1994 election.

Clark, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and the Rev. Al Sharpton are the only contenders in the 10-candidate field who haven’t served in Congress.

Of the remaining seven, four are Senators, two are House Members, and former Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun served one term in the Senate representing Illinois from 1992 to 1998.

The organizers of the meeting — Berry and Reps. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) — emphasized that the goal was not to secure an armful of endorsements but rather to give those interested in the former general a chance to see him up close.

“The endorsements will come in good time,” Berry predicted.

“We are all seeing what [Clark] has to say and what kind of plans he is going to offer,” said Rep. Loretta Sanchez (Calif.), who arrived at the meeting, which took place at 428 New Jersey Ave. SE, with her sister and fellow Rep. Linda Sanchez (Calif.). Both are uncommitted, although Loretta Sanchez said she had worked with Clark before on the Armed Services Committee and came away impressed.

For his part, Clark declared that he was “not counting my success in terms of Congressional endorsements,” but added: “I am very gratified with the number of Members that have endorsed me.”

Clark has 10 House Members and home-state Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor on board.

While Clark’s supporters are eagerly hoping for an endorsement by Sen. John Breaux (La.), the Senator’s office said late Tuesday no decision has yet been made. One of a handful of Senators to meet with the retired general Tuesday, Breaux came away from the meeting very impressed. According to one aide, he called Clark “someone who would do very well” in the South in a general election.

Berry has predicted that Clark will receive upwards of 50 endorsements before the primary process is over.

Roughly two-thirds of House Members and Senators have not yet gotten behind any candidate.

Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) leads the Congressional endorsement battle with 31 Members on board. Rep. Ted Strickland (Ohio) is expected to add his name to that list later this week. Steve Elmendorf, a senior adviser to Gephardt’s campaign, dismissed the meeting’s impact on Member endorsements.

“When they sign up and put their name on a press release, show me the list,” he said.

Several Members interviewed Wednesday said some of their colleagues who had previously committed to other candidates will quickly line up with Clark if their chosen horse drops out of the contest.

“I know about a dozen guys holding their breath until their candidate is out of the way and they can endorse General Clark,” said Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), one of the most conservative House Democrats and an announced Clark supporter.

Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.), who remains undecided, said “Members who have endorsed will stick with their candidate, but after the race goes on, then maybe.”

Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.), who has already committed himself to the presidential campaign of home-state Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.), attended the meeting but said he was not contemplating jumping ship. He did, however, speak highly of Clark.

“Many of us know him and have met him before, like we have the other candidates,” said Boyd.

The turnout for the event, which was scheduled several hours before the first votes of the week, was notable for its span across the Democratic ideological spectrum.

Liberal Members like Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), Jim McDermott (Wash.) and Rangel attended as did conservative Blue Dog Democrats such as Charlie Stenholm (Texas), Ken Lucas (Ky.) and Dennis Moore (Kan.).

“When Charlie Rangel and Charlie Stenholm back something it’s got to fly,” the New York Congressman joked before heading in to listen to Clark.

No members of the House Democratic leadership attended the meeting; Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) have already thrown their support to Gephardt.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.