Kerry Seeks to Mesh With Hill

Posted April 18, 2004 at 2:57pm

Sen. John Kerry’s decision to add two more Members of Congress to his inner political circle is a signal that Hill Democrats will likely wield considerable influence in the Massachusetts Democrat’s campaign to win the White House.

In contrast to the 2000 presidential contest, when then-Vice President Al Gore kept Congressional Democrats at arms length, Kerry frequently solicits his colleagues’ advice as well as asking them to act as surrogates on the campaign trail and fundraising circuit.

“Unlike the Gore campaign, which paid very little if any attention to what was happening on Capitol Hill, Senator Kerry and his team is interested in ensuring that the message operation is going to run smoothly,” said a senior Democratic aide, who spoke freely only on the condition of anonymity. “This move highlights one of the many, many things Gore did wrong in 2000.”

So far, Kerry’s kitchen cabinet has been reserved primarily for family members and a handful of his most trusted advisers including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

But Kerry opened up more seats at the table last week by appointing Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) to serve as co-chairs of the Democratic National Committee.

These two Members are expected to help Kerry strengthen ties with his Congressional colleagues as well as serve as chief spokesmen on his behalf. Jones said the appointments should help streamline the Democratic message coordination between Kerry’s team and the respective House and Senate campaign efforts. A Kerry victory could potentially help Democrats wrest the Congressional majority in both chambers from Republicans, she predicted.

“From the Members I have spoken with, they are all anxious to go out on the campaign trail on his behalf,” Jones said.

DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe acknowledged a key component of their strategy this year is to get both House and Senate Democrats engaged in the campaign, a directive Kerry issued shortly after winning the Democratic nomination.

McAuliffe described it as a plan to build a surrogate program that will help to add “more people and more voices” on the campaign trail in an effort to overcome President Bush’s use of the White House as a bully pulpit.

McAuliffe said Kerry told him at a strategy meeting one week after locking up the Democratic presidential nomination that “we have got to really build an infrastructure to get these Members involved in the campaign.”

So far, Kerry’s rhetoric of inclusion has largely matched his actions. Since early March, Kerry’s vice presidential headhunter, Jim Johnson, has been meeting with Congressional Democrats to hear their ideas and thoughts about who he should choose as his running mate.

And Kerry, who has often been criticized in the past for being aloof, built up goodwill with his colleagues in the weeks following his primary win when he attended meetings with the full House and Senate Democratic Caucuses as well holding separate sessions with the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Bill Burton, a Kerry spokesman, said the advantage of having a Member speaking on behalf of Kerry in their state or district is “that they know their constituents a lot better than anybody on staff, so they are very effective messengers.”

McAuliffe and Burton noted the surrogate program will extend beyond Washington to enlist state legislators and governors to help amplify the Kerry message.

The Kerry campaign is now deploying and employing Congressional Democrats to states where they can best help Kerry. For example, Rep. Richard Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) focus will be in the Midwest and states with large union populations, while Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and others will be tasked with trying to help the Massachusetts Senator win Florida and its 27 electoral votes.

Kerry is scheduled to campaign in Miami today with Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee after attending a fundraiser with him last night. Lieberman remains a popular figure with Democratic voters in Florida, the epicenter of the 2000 election recount controversy.

In addition to their new duties as DNC co-chairmen, Durbin and Jones will also be tasked with helping Kerry appeal to Midwestern voters. While the Massachusetts Senator is expected to win Illinois and that state’s 21 electoral votes, Ohio’s 20 electoral votes are up for grabs.

“Part of the reason I was appointed to this position is that I am from Ohio,” she said. “I have got to deliver Ohio.”

While Durbin and Jones have been named DNC co-chairmen, McAuliffe remains the chairman of the committee responsible for its day-to-day operations.