Democrats’ Man of the House

Posted October 20, 2004 at 2:31pm

This profile marks the introduction of Beyond the Fab 50, an occasional look at the people who make up Roll Call’s Fabulous 50 staffers list.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) deputy chief of staff, George Kundanis, has come a long way from his first Congressional job working out of the dressing room of then-Rep. Tom Foley (D-Wash.).

Kundanis, one of the most powerful and respected staffers on Capitol Hill, began his House tenure nearly 30 years ago working as a Congressional fellow for Foley, the future Democratic Speaker. Kundanis’ desk was situated in Foley’s tiny changing room, and his job involved fielding conservative mail from the Member’s Eastern Washington district.

“If I ever had the sense of a big ego, I’d just think about that,” Kundanis recalls with a laugh. “It was not some place you would bring your mother.”

That was December 1976, and the 26-year-old Kundanis was pursuing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. He had been accepted for a House fellowship through the American Political Science Association.

Kundanis chose to work for Foley at the urging of Thomas Mann, the then-executive director of the APSA now at the Brookings Institution. He told the young student to work for Foley because the Washington Democrat would be Speaker someday. Foley did become Speaker in 1986, after serving as Majority Leader, Majority Whip and Caucus chairman, a job he began in December 1976 on the same day Kundanis began working for him. Even today, Foley’s ascension to Speaker is one of Kundanis’ greatest career moments.

Somewhat shy, humble and small in stature, Kundanis has worked for every Democratic leader since Foley and worn nearly every hat a Congressional staffer could. He’s worked the floor, dealt with the press, handled legislation and advised leaders and Members on key matters ranging from the institution of Congress to partisan Democratic politics.

“George, I was told, comes with that [Democratic leadership] office,” says a one-time aide to Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), the former Minority Leader for whom Kundanis worked for a decade. “The true reason that office can run is because of George Kundanis.”

Kundanis refuses to try to characterize how he’s viewed by Members or even his peers, but clearly he has earned his place on the Hill. Kundanis has been on of Roll Call’s elite Fabulous 50 staffer list since it began in earnest in 1988.

“George is the guy on the inside who keeps the trains running,” says a House Democratic leadership aide. “He knows the procedures, he knows the rules and institutionally he has all this knowledge. He is one of the biggest assets Pelosi has.”

Funny for a man who largely avoids the media and rarely, if ever, allows his name in print. It is not an ego that drives him; rather, he is a Democratic idealist who continues a career on the Hill to win a majority to actualize those ideals.

“I am committed to the values of our party,” Kundanis says. “In this place, more than any place, values are expressed.

“I could do other things,” he adds, but says he hasn’t left the House because he believes “it’s important not to vacate the battlefield” when Democrats are still fighting to win back control.

Kundanis admits he’s seen quite a bit in the past three decades. He felt the sting of watching his then-boss, Foley, become embroiled in the House banking scandal of the early 1990s. He also experienced, first-hand, the 1994 Republican revolution that took away a four-decades-long Democratic majority.

Kundanis says that loss is his greatest career regret, one over which he shares some personal responsibility. “It wasn’t fate, we were in charge.”

“It would have been easy to leave [the Hill] in 1995,” Kundanis says. “It was a miserable experience. In meeting after meeting, Members were bitter. People were firing half their staff. It was difficult.

“People were very angry and very angry at leadership. That would have been the time to leave because Democratic ideals were the most threatened.” But Kundanis stayed on and now is a staple of the House Democratic leadership.

After Foley lost his re-election to the House — that came with the 1994 Republican takeover — Kundanis jumped to Gephardt’s office as a senior adviser. There really was no transition period, with sources saying the Missouri lawmaker didn’t hesitate in hiring him.

Then, in 2002, when Gephardt stepped down as Minority Leader, newly elected Democratic leader Pelosi quickly snatched up Kundanis, making him her No. 2 staffer under her chief of staff, George Crawford. Sources say Kundanis and Pelosi were instantly a perfect match, with one Pelosi staffer calling them “ideological soul mates.”

“It’s almost as if he is her eyes and ears in the House — keeping his eyes on the news, what Members are doing, what they are thinking, what’s going on politically,” says Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s communications director.

“He’s got very good judgment, and she trusts him.”

“George has unsurpassed knowledge of everything that comes before the Congress — the politics, the people and the policy,” said Pelosi. “His talent, experience, savvy and strategic thinking are invaluable to me and to all the Members of the Democratic Caucus.”

Kundanis also believes he fits well with Pelosi, saying that like him, she is a party idealist who promotes Democratic principles rather than focusing on her personal gain. He also says he finds it remarkable that a woman could be the Speaker of the House, an unimaginable accomplishment when he started on the Hill in 1976.

Kundanis refuses to take credit for any Democratic accomplishments, attributing any party success to the team that surrounds the leadership. But the veteran staffer does acknowledge he is a part of that team, and adds value with his long résumé of Hill service.

“I bring experience,” he says. “Sometimes it’s better to know what’s been done in the past and what’s been rejected. I have a good feel for the Members, who they are and what they will and will not do. I can predict possible landmines.”

At 54, most staffers who know Kundanis believe he will end his career just as he began it — on the Hill. But Kundanis says he doesn’t think too much about his next professional move.

“As long as I can provide value I’ve always wanted to stay,” he says.