Democrats Clash on Communications

Posted November 4, 2003 at 6:40pm

The latest push by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) to get more Members face time on television has ruffled the feathers of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who felt her office should be leading the charge.

Menendez and Pelosi are downplaying talk of any turf war, saying the two are working together to coordinate efforts to put more of their Members on television and radio news and talk shows. But several senior Democratic sources close to the issue say the tiff between the two leaders has resulted in bad feelings on both sides.

A number of top aides said Pelosi’s office wasn’t happy when Menendez launched his “Democrats on the Record” effort last week, as the Minority Leader already has a communications team of roughly a dozen staffers devoted to getting House Democrats more exposure.

A turf war “absolutely exists,” insisted one senior Democratic aide. “There are some real frustrations there. Melissa [Skolfield, Pelosi’s communications counsel] sees it as something her office should be doing.”

Another high-level Democratic staffer said Pelosi’s office has since been trying to “strip” portions of the initiative away from the Caucus leader. Unlike her predecessor, Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), Pelosi has kept Democratic message and communications strategy centralized in her office.

Several senior aides said even though Pelosi is charged with media outreach, Members weren’t aware she had staff specifically assigned to booking them on television and radio shows. Those Members likely went to Menendez and asked him to help, sources said.

“It seems as though the leader’s office is trying to contend that they already had this type of operation going,” said one well-placed Democratic aide. “But from outside the office that doesn’t appear to be the case.”

To try to resolve the conflict, high-level staff meetings between the two leadership offices were held to discuss the topic last week, in which the two clashed over who should be taking the lead.

According to sources, Pelosi’s office will continue to broadly coordinate Member’s media appearances both locally and nationally, while Menendez’s office will assist in that effort by working with producers and bookers and providing them with Member availability, discussion topics and contact information.

“We had some issues that needed to be discussed,” acknowledged a Democratic leadership aide of the conflict, adding the two sides are working to move forward together.

Publicly, both Pelosi and Menendez brushed aside talk of a rift, saying they have consistently worked together to get more exposure for House Democrats and insisted talk of a turf war is overblown.

“We are coordinating with the leader’s office,” Menendez said in an interview. “I think you will see a continued effort to be in coordination with the Leader.”

He said as Caucus chairman he strives to be “responsive to the Caucus” and put together the plan as a result of growing interest among Members to push the party message through media outlets. Menendez said the goal of his office, as it is for all Democrats, is to achieve a majority in the House.

“I don’t think there’s any conflict in that,” he said. “We work hand and glove” with the Leader’s office.

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly echoed Menendez, saying: “We’re working together to make certain that House Democrats are being heard, both in local and national media markets.”

Menendez’s initiative is similar to an earlier television booking effort led by then-Assistant to the Minority Leader Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who left the post last year when Gephardt stepped down as leader.

One Democratic aide noted that despite any conflict between Pelosi and Menendez, “it’s a good thing” the effort is being put back in place.

“It’s been close to a year since Rosa was the Assistant Leader and since that time we haven’t seen anything from anyone in the leadership indicating they were picking up this service,” the staffer said.