Peterson, in Ag Bid, Pays Up

Posted November 19, 2004 at 6:47pm

Amid speculation that House Democratic leaders may bypass Rep. Collin Peterson (Minn.) for the ranking slot on the Agriculture Committee, the veteran lawmaker has begun an intense lobbying campaign within the Caucus for the position and — for the first time in nearly a decade — paid his party dues.

Party leaders say Peterson is likely to get the position in the end, but they want assurances that the Democrat, who was just elected to an eighth term, will be a party player.

Leadership sources said Peterson has rarely participated in the Caucus, has a history of voting against the party, failed to contribute to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and other Members and is widely viewed as potential party switcher.

But in recent days, Peterson has begun a far-reaching internal effort to prove his worth to the Caucus. He has begun showing up at Member meetings, sent letters to his colleagues seeking their support, sought and won the backing of fellow Agriculture Democrats and regional Members, and met privately with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to make his case.

“Obviously, I’m very interested” in the position, Peterson said in an interview. “I represent one of the biggest agriculture districts in the country.”

Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas) had been the top Democrat on the panel but lost his reelection bid amid a controversial redistricting effort in his state. Rep. Tim Holden (D-Pa.) is next in line if the leadership decides not to promote Peterson.

The Democratic Steering and Policy Committee is expected to meet in early December to determine ranking members and exclusive committee appointments. They will then forward those recommendations to the full Caucus for consideration.

Peterson said he believes he deserves the Agriculture slot and feels he has enough support within the Caucus to get it. He said he sees any resistance limited to a handful of Members who are upset over his support of the GOP Medicare bill last year — not over his failure to participate in party functions or to pay his dues.

“I think there may be a couple, three people who are upset about [the Medicare vote], but I don’t think there’s any widespread opposition,” Peterson said. “There are probably 50 Members who have come up to me and asked me if they can help, and what they can do. I don’t think there are going to be any problems.”

But senior-level Democratic sources within the Caucus say Peterson’s rise in the committee is not assured. In fact, in a private meeting shortly after the Nov. 2 election, Pelosi pressed Peterson on his allegiance when it became clear that the ranking Agriculture job would be available.

“People within this institution and outside of this institution look to our ranking members as true leaders and have the respect of colleagues — and this is not the case with him,” said a senior-level Democratic aide. “You never see him in Caucus meetings. He doesn’t bring anything to the table. As a ranking member, you have certain responsibilities.”

Said another well-placed Democratic staffer: “Democrats were in the fight of our lives to regain the House this cycle. We truly need team players to take back the House. He’s not been a member of the Democratic team.”

Still, one high-level Democratic Member predicted Peterson will get the job — as long as he continues to show willingness to work with the party, pay dues, lead Democratic policy initiatives and take care of other Members.

“Members just want to make sure he knows what he’s supposed to do, and got to do,” the lawmaker said.

Well-placed sources said Pelosi, whom Peterson supported early on during her runs for Minority Whip and Leader, and other senior Democrats are making clear to Peterson that if he wants to succeed Stenholm, he has to step up his party participation.

“Pelosi made a point to him that he’s got to pay his dues and vote with us,” said a knowledgeable Democratic aide. “She told him [getting the post] was not a slam dunk.”

Shortly after that meeting, Peterson wrote a check for $45,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He wrote his first check of $25,000 on Oct. 25, a week before the election. Prior to those checks, financial records show Peterson gave just $5,000 to the DCCC, back in 1996.

“It’s awfully ironic that after having done nothing to help the Democrats retake the House since we went into the minority, all of a sudden when he stands to benefit … he wants to help the Democrats,” said a Democratic aide to a powerful Member. “It’s even more ironic that he made his largest commitment to the party after Election Day.”

Concerns among Democratic leaders over Member giving are not limited to Peterson. Leadership officials were disappointed in Members on the exclusive committees and in senior positions who didn’t pay dues this cycle.

Earlier this fall, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) reminded Members that those committee assignments don’t come without an obligation and that when the steering panel meets to reassign posts for the 109th Congress, Member giving should be a topic of discussion.

While no one is suggesting that existing committee Members could lose their positions, several sources say that leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers are frustrated and will voice those feelings when committee assignments are doled out.

“I think this issue is bubbling,” said a Democratic Member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It started in the last cycle and it’s now percolating. People are saying, ‘Why should you serve on an exclusive committee if you aren’t willing to participate?’”

As for Peterson, he acknowledged he paid $70,000 dues this cycle, but he said he didn’t believe the rumors that getting the ranking Member job “has anything to do with dues.” Peterson said he didn’t have time to discuss the specifics but said he didn’t pay dues in the past because of unhappiness over how the DCCC treated him.

Asked if he had moved beyond those feelings, he said: “I guess I have.”

Peterson insisted that he is a proud part of the Democratic Party, shoving aside rumors that he has entertained switching parties. One Republican leadership aide said party officials haven’t approached Peterson about coming on board, but they are keeping a close eye on whether he gets the Agriculture job.

“I don’t know where this stuff comes from,” Peterson said. “I’ve been a Democrat forever, and [a party switch is] just not something that’s going to happen.”

Peterson’s district stretches from the southwestern fringes of the Twin Cities metro area all the way west to the Dakotas and north to Canada. While it has historically been a swing district, it is two-thirds rural and in 2000 gave George W. Bush a 14-point victory — Bush’s largest in any Minnesota district.

Such political realities give Peterson some reason to fear a close association with the national Democratic Party. Yet even his fellow moderate and conservative Members have questioned his party loyalty, given that he hasn’t been a strong contributor to their re-election efforts.

Peterson contributed $3,000 to fellow Members this cycle. They are Reps. Holden, Alcee Hastings (Fla.) and Leonard Boswell (Iowa).

“There is consternation among a certain number of Blue Dogs” about him getting the slot, said a Democratic aide to a moderate Member. “I don’t think he’s been overly helpful to many of them.”

Ben Pershing contributed to this report.