Dean Seeks to Repair Hill Ties

Posted February 7, 2005 at 6:50pm

With former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean now virtually guaranteed to become the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee, efforts have begun to repair the relationship between Dean and the Democratic establishment on Capitol Hill — ties that were frayed during his unsuccessful run for the party’s presidential nomination in 2004.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — both of whom were publicly neutral during the DNC chairmanship race but who are widely believed to have favored other candidates for the post — will both address the DNC on Friday, one day before its 447-member national committee is expected to select Dean as its new chairman.

Behind the scenes, Dean has already begun to try to forge a bond with the two top Congressional Democrats, as well as other party leaders, and is expected to sit down with them personally in the coming days, several Democratic sources said.

In a series of phone calls with Reid and Pelosi last week, Dean has promised to help rebuild a Democratic Party that was beaten soundly at the polls in November, losing not only the battle for the White House but also ceding four seats in the Senate and another two seats in the House.

Dean has also promised party leaders that he won’t meddle in efforts to set Democratic policy. Instead, he has said he will focus on raising money and building the party infrastructure, hoping to boost the party’s prospects in campaigns beginning this fall with gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia.

“Gov. Dean has made no secret that he’s going to work closely with the Hill,” said Laura Gross, Dean’s spokeswoman. “He will be in constant touch.”

Pelosi and Reid encouraged former Rep. Tim Roemer (Ind.) to run for the DNC chairman’s post, and late in the effort, Reid made phone calls to bolster support for the candidacy of former Texas Rep. Martin Frost. Frost eventually dropped out after attracting little support, and Roemer officially exited the race Monday — the last of Dean’s opponents to do so.

Their departures from the race cleared the field for Dean, who has won kudos for his efforts to energize the Democratic grass roots and for his success in raising funds through the Internet, but who has also spawned concerns about whether his ideological views are out of touch with mainstream America. Many establishment Democrats worry that his aggressive stance against the war in Iraq during the presidential primaries has branded him as too liberal a spokesman as the party seeks to make inroads in conservative states won in 2004 by President Bush.

Indeed, both Frost and Roemer warned the party as they quit the race that Democrats need to improve their image on national security and personal values or else they will continue to lose at the polls.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was the only leader to make a public endorsement in the DNC race, backing his friend Frost. Dean also called Hoyer last week as part of his outreach effort, according to Democratic sources.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a longtime Dean ally in the House, said that by reaching out early to Congressional Democrats, Dean is “doing exactly the right thing,” and he expects the one-time presidential hopeful will do all that is necessary to rebuild a troubled Democratic Party.

“The victor should always reach out to those who didn’t support him and say that he’s going to represent the entire party, and not some fraction of it,” Nadler said. Dean is showing “that the door is open and [asking] what are your opinions.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), another longtime Dean friend and supporter, said Dean is a highly skilled politician who will work hard to unify his party. She added that if history is any indicator, the former Vermont governor will pay special attention to the needs of Congressional Democrats.

“He’s been reaching out to Members of Congress throughout,” said Lofgren, one of more than three dozen Hill Democrats who backed Dean during his presidential campaign. “It’s not a new thing. In fact, last year he held a series of events raising funds for the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] and Senate Democrats. I can’t think of anyone else of his stature who went around the country and raised money for House Democrats.”

Senior Democratic aides on Capitol Hill said Dean appears to be engaging in the leadership outreach as part of the “due diligence” required of a new DNC chairman. Dean can then appear to be consulting with Pelosi and Reid, even though he doesn’t necessarily need them to advance his goal of being the new face and voice of the party.

“It’s smart on his part,” said one well-connected Democratic staffer.

Sources close to Pelosi asserted that the House Minority Leader has never been “anti-Dean,” noting that she urged Roemer to enter the DNC race before Dean officially launched his campaign.

As evidence of her lack of animus toward the former Vermont governor, Pelosi will praise Dean on Friday in her speech before the DNC, pointing to his commitment to the party and ability to mobilize and energize young and disaffected voters.

Pelosi and Dean have spoken several times in recent weeks, aides say. In their most recent conversation, the presumptive DNC chairman told Pelosi he would work with Congressional Democrats, campaigning on their behalf during the 2006 midterm elections while allowing the two leaders to set the party policy agenda.

Dean “has made it clear he wants to work with them,” said Brendan Daly, Pelosi’s spokesman. “And they look forward to working together.”

Reid and Dean have found themselves on different sides of high-profile issues recently, although sources close to both men described the conversation between the two last week as “cordial.”

In a Jan. 30 New York Times article, Dean criticized Reid’s backing for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as a potential chief justice. “I don’t think that’s where most Democrats are,” Dean said at the time. “I sympathized with [Reid], because many times in the campaign I said a few things like that without thinking through the implications of what I was saying.”

Aides to both Dean and Reid said that the two had a long discussion last week and that any differences between the men have been ironed out for the sake of Democratic unity.

Dean’s aides also suggest that the notion of a split between Dean and the Democratic Party leadership in Washington has been overblown in media accounts.