Kerry’s Man in the House

Posted February 13, 2004 at 6:09pm

Massachusetts Rep. Ed Markey’s (D) biggest victory on behalf of Sen. John Kerry’s presidential effort came in the dark days of the campaign, more than two months before Iowa voters cast their ballots Jan. 19.

In the days following the dismissal of Kerry’s first campaign manager on Nov. 10, and with polls showing the Massachusetts Senator languishing in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Markey harangued his House colleagues to hold off on endorsing other candidates — most notably former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean — until actual votes had been cast.

“The goal was to have the Members give John Kerry a second look,” said Markey, the head of Kerry’s Congressional whip team, in an interview last week in his Rayburn office.

“I explained how powerful the campaign in Iowa was going to become and how that would then ripple into the New Hampshire primary in a way that would lead to John Kerry winning that state,” explained Markey. “The majority of Members were willing to give the campaign a chance to unfold.”

Kerry deputy campaign manager Steve Elmendorf, formerly a senior adviser to Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (Mo.) presidential effort, said that “even in the dark days when no one thought Kerry could win, Ed Markey was steadfast.”

Markey’s belief in a Kerry comeback was firmly rooted in the Senator’s choice of Mary Beth Cahill, Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) chief of staff, as his presidential campaign manager.

Cahill and Markey first worked together 20 years ago when she ran his 1984 campaign.

In that race, Markey faced serious primary opposition after briefly entering and then exiting the open-seat Senate race, which coincidentally was won by then-Lt. Gov. John Kerry.

A number of Democrats had filed for Markey’s Congressional seat but only one — state legislator Sam Rotondi — ran a serious campaign after the incumbent abandoned his Senate bid. Markey won 54 percent to 41 percent.

Of Cahill, Markey said: “She is the best there is in the business.” He noted, however, that he had nothing to do with the ouster of Kerry’s original manager and Cahill’s subsequent hiring.

Markey’s ardent advocacy of Kerry has paid off in spades, as less than three months after the Massachusetts Senator appeared dead in the water he is now the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Shocking the political establishment, Kerry not only swept to victories in Iowa and New Hampshire but also in 10 of the 12 states that have held primaries or caucuses since then.

Markey said that his responsibilities have changed with his candidate’s ascension to the top of the field.

“Our role will be to be a liaison between Members and Senator Kerry as this campaign unfolds heading into Super Tuesday,” said Markey. “The campaign is in a very good position.”

While most Democrats believe the race for the nomination is all but over, both Dean and Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) remain in the race.

Dean has pledged to make a stand against Kerry in Wisconsin today while Edwards’ campaign maintains that they will remain in the race at least through Super Tuesday (March 2) when 10 states — including the huge delegate troves of California, New York and Ohio — cast their votes.

Endorsements for Kerry have been pouring in of late, and Markey said he has had a number of conversations over the past two weeks with Members who have endorsed other candidates but are “prepared to endorse John Kerry immediately upon their candidate leaving the race.”

On Wednesday, 13 of the 18 House backers of retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s presidential effort threw their support to Kerry.

While all Members are approached as potential Kerry supporters, Markey said there is “no pressure” applied to those individuals backing other candidates.

“Loyalty is an important part of politics, and we all understand that,” Markey said.

Kerry and Kennedy have made personal phone calls to Members supporting Dean, however, urging them to switch their allegiances sooner rather than later.

The only Member to revoke his or her support for Dean to this point is Michigan Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, who backed off the former governor after he placed a distant second behind Kerry in the state’s Feb. 7 caucuses. She has not yet endorsed another candidate.

As it becomes clearer and clearer that Kerry will be the Democratic standard bearer, Republicans have begun to hone their attacks on him — barbs that begin with his Massachusetts political base, synonymous in partisan politics with liberalism.

Markey dismissed the idea that Kerry’s home state will in any way damage him in the eyes of voters nationwide.

“On the issues that people are most concerned about — the economy and health care — it doesn’t make any difference where you live,” said Markey. “If your family feels vulnerable then you don’t care where someone comes from, you only care where they are going.”

Markey also said that in conversations he has had with vulnerable Members, they have told him they are “comfortable” with Kerry at the top of the ticket.

He recounted a recent discussion with several Texas Members, who have seen their futures clouded by a Republican-led redraw of the state’s Congressional districts.

“They like the fact that he is a veteran, they like the fact he was a prosecutor, they like the fact he fought for balanced budgets,” said Markey. “That is a very good sign.”

Members privately and party strategists publicly had voiced concern over Dean’s potential negative impact down ballot given his vehement opposition to the war in Iraq and support for a complete rollback of the Bush tax cut.

Kerry voted for the Iraq war resolution and favors repealing the tax cuts given to only the wealthiest Americans.

Even with Kerry leading in recent head-to-head matchups against President Bush, Markey refused to speculate about his own future.

Asked whether he had his eye on either a Cabinet post in a Kerry administration or a Senate bid for the seat Kerry would vacate, Markey demurred.

“There will be time to discuss all of that at the Kerry inaugural ball,” he said.