Plan to Split DNC Chairmanship in Two Is Floated

Posted November 19, 2004 at 6:39pm

Incoming Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said party leaders are seriously considering naming two people to chair the Democratic National Committee, a proposal that would help boost Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s bid to lead the party’s political machine.

“One of the things that we talked about is to make sure there is somebody there on a day-to-day basis to handle things,” Reid said in an interview. “We have done things like that before.”

Such a scenario would help the Democratic Party’s central fundraising and political arm portray an outside-the-Beltway image while still making sure that the headquarters is run by a hands-on manager.

The proposal harks back to 1995, when then-President Bill Clinton named two DNC chairmen: Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) as general chairman and Donald Fowler as national chairman. Dodd was the figurehead and primary spokesperson, while Fowler oversaw the DNC’s daily operations.

Vilsack, who was a finalist for the vice-presidential slot on the 2004 Democratic presidential ticket, would provide both a heartland perspective and experience winning in territory that’s not always favorable to Democrats. His state was one of two — the other being New Mexico — that turned from “blue” to “red” in the 2004 election.

Vilsack is not the only prominent Democrat interested in the job, which will entail a major rebuilding of the party in the wake of elections in which Republicans not only secured a second presidential term but also made gains in the House and Senate.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman are both interested in the post, as are several others.

Reid noted that Vilsack is “working very hard … making a lot of calls.”

“I am not going to endorse him, but he is satisfactory to me,” Reid added. “He is from the right part of the country. He is a good guy, so we will see what will happen.”

A successor to current DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe will be chosen in February at the committee’s winter meeting.

So far, no names have surfaced as a potential national chairman — should DNC members choose this model — but it would likely be a respected party strategist who’s palatable to both liberal and conservative Democrats.

For many conservative Democrats, remaking the party’s image is a crucial component to regaining trust with voters beyond their traditional core constituency. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) suggested that Vilsack could help Democrats rebuild a bridge back to middle America, which is awash is Republican red.

“I think that Midwesterners can establish that the Democratic Party is not devoid of values and is strong on many of these issues that are important to people,” said Nelson, who is slated to seek a second term in 2006.

The Nebraska Senator endorsed the idea of having two DNC chairmen, suggesting such a scenario gives the party the “best of all worlds.”

But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Democrats, and particularly future presidential candidates, need to be careful not to overlook the party’s political base in the rush to focus on “battleground states.”

“A person is running for president of the United States, and while you have to focus on your battleground states, it’s important to convey a message to our entire country,” she said.

Pelosi said she had spoken to Vilsack and noted that it is her “understanding … that he has a degree of support” for the job. Still, the Minority Leader left open the possibility that someone else other than Vilsack might be chosen for the position.

“We are blessed to have a number of excellent candidates,” said Pelosi, who has not formally endorsed anyone for the post.

Even as Democrats work toward replacing McAuliffe, there is discussion within the party about who will serve as the main public face of the party for the next three years.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) filled that role from 2001 until Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) was chosen as the Democratic presidential nominee earlier this year. But with the defeat of both Kerry and Daschle earlier this month, the unofficial job of party spokesman is vacant.

Reid said he has already met with Pelosi and expects to share these duties with her and other prominent Democrats, including Kerry.

“We are going to do our very best to have one message,” Reid said, adding that the two Democratic leaders in Congress would hold regular strategy meetings.

A Democratic Senator who represents a red state said there is concern among conservative Democrats that Pelosi is not the appropriate spokesperson for the party at this time.

“With all due respect, Nancy Pelosi is a San Francisco liberal Democrat,” said the senior Senator, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly. “Most of us who want to expand our party think she has done a nice job, but she is not the person who is going to articulate the message that is going to get the majority back.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a self-described centrist, said while there is “a longing for Democrats to speak with one voice, I feel that is a longing that will not be soon satisfied.”

Still, Carper advised Democratic leaders to work to make sure they present a unified front in the coming months.

“The important thing is when they speak they need to speak in some harmony or sing in some harmony, and it is going to mean coordinating the messages and trying to stay on the same page of sheet music,” he said.