An Inside Job

W.H. Hopefuls Rely on Liaisons

Posted November 11, 2003 at 6:51pm

Whether they admit it or not, the Democrats running for president are eager to garner as much support as possible for their bids on Capitol Hill. But as the first votes of the process near, none is in a position to spend significant personal time with Members as the candidates are instead focusing energies on stumping in early caucus and primary states.

So the task of keeping already committed Members in the loop and hand-holding and cajoling those in the undecided column falls to the diverse group of aides serving as liaisons between the candidates and Congress.

Perhaps the most aggressive advocate for his candidate on Capitol Hill — and the man most familiar with dealing with the concerns of House Democrats on a daily basis — is Gephardt senior adviser Steve Elmendorf.

As the session winds down, Elmendorf is scheduled to convene a gathering of chiefs of staff for the 32 Members publicly supporting Gephardt today, the latest in an ongoing series of communications between the campaign and Members. In addition to Elmendorf, lobbyist Dan Turton of Timmons and Co. is also heavily involved with the Gephardt Congressional liaison operation.

“We have the two-month program [in Iowa], the one-month program and the one-week program,” said Elmendorf. “Members can go and spend significant time there.”

In 1988, Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses largely on the strength of a number of House Members fanning out across the state on his behalf. A similar operation is planned this cycle in a state seen as a must-win for the Missouri Congressman.

“Members are helping us raise money, being surrogates, and going to early states — Iowa and beyond,” said Elmendorf. “We are always trying to find more Members to be for us.”

Elmendorf has not limited his work to the House. He and senior political adviser David Plouffe spoke to Senate chiefs of staff last Friday and the campaign has “people going through all of the Senate offices,” he said.

Although Gephardt’s campaign, and Elmendorf specifically, have put the most focus on relations with and endorsements from Members, each of the six candidates given a legitimate shot at winning the nomination have at least one staffer dedicated to working the halls of Congress.

These liaisons work with Members on everything from reconnaissance on the attitudes of their colleagues toward the race, whipping for support and fundraising.

“[Members] are a great resource in terms of policy information,” said Paul Blank, political director for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and head of the campaign’s interaction with Congress. Prior to joining Dean, Blank managed the unsuccessful campaign of attorney Chris Khouri (D) in North Carolina’s 8th district.

Blank convenes a weekly phone call with Members and their aides — typically on Tuesday nights — to provide updates.

“We give them the big news of the week and what will be happening in the week going forward,” said Blank. “They give me feedback in terms of what they think and what other Members are thinking on the floor.”

Taking a page from Gephardt’s book, Dean campaigned alongside Rep. Bob Filner (Calif.) in Iowa on Tuesday, marking Veterans Day. Filner is the ranking member on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Dean now has 13 Members backing his campaign, but Blank said that while there is no organized whip operation, Congressional supporters do help him target potential endorsees during the weekly call.

“They all have a lot of conversations with other Members and report the feedback to me,” Blank said.

In contrast, Lieberman takes an aggressive approach to securing endorsements, according to political director Joe Eyer, the former Northeast political director for the 2000 presidential campaign of Al Gore.

Eyer leads a twice-monthly meeting with chiefs of staff of their Member-supporters, which usually takes place at the Dutko Group.

Prior to her decision to run for Congress, Lisa Quigley, the former chief of staff for Rep. Cal Dooley (Calif.), was the organizer for these meetings, said Eyer, and the staffs of the Connecticut delegation are also extremely active. Quigley is now seeking to replace Dooley in California’s 20th district.

“We go about trying to secure support in a very organized, methodical way and when we think there are real possibilities we put the Senator on the phone or schedule a sit-down,” said Eyer.

Eyer also coordinates a hand-delivery of clips, polling information and major policy announcements to Member offices regularly.

Earlier in the year, Lieberman had a series of small-group dinners with Members as well.

Both North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark have several staffers charged with maintaining their Hill relationships.

The Edwards operation is overseen by political director Sky Gallegos, who has five regional political desks under her that handle Congressional relations in their regions.

Gallegos is charged with outreach to members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, while Craig Kirby does the same in the Congressional Black Caucus.

Early in the year, Edwards sent out a general letter of introduction to all 205 House Democrats asking for their support. The campaign now drops a weekly newsletter to its supporters updating them on campaign developments.

In Clark’s case, he has brought in perhaps the most experienced Congressional liaison team, led by Thurgood Marshall Jr.

Marshall, who handled Congressional affairs for Gore, said that the offices of Reps. Marion Berry (Ark.), Charlie Rangel (N.Y.) and Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) had been laying the groundwork within the Congress for months before he came on and that “they have welcomed us into that group.”

Marshall has a team of six with past experience in the House and Senate, which he believes is a major advantage.

“We have a small group that has worked these sorts of things at various levels in the past,” he said. “The beauty of it is that we don’t have to spend a lot of time organizationally amongst ourselves.”

He also believes the strong political acumen of Berry, Rangel and Emanuel (himself a former senior political operative in the Clinton administration) and their willingness to work the floor for Clark distinguishes their team.

Despite trailing only Gephardt in Congressional backers, Kerry appears to have the least formal approach to his dealings with Congress.

Jonathan Adashek heads up Kerry’s delegate program — of which Members are a key component. Each Member of Congress is a superdelegate to his or her party’s national convention meaning that they are not bound by their state’s primary vote to support any one candidate.

But while Kerry has convened several meetings of his supporters, the campaign does not have any sort of regular gatherings, said spokeswoman Kelley Benander.

Benander also noted that the Massachusetts delegation is extremely active in helping fundraise and serving as a surrogates for Kerry in events around the country.