Dean to Visit With Hill Democrats

Posted March 4, 2005 at 6:41pm

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean will meet separately with House Members and Senators this week, the most public sign of his outreach to Congress since winning the post last month.

Dean is scheduled to attend the Senate Democratic luncheon Tuesday and speak at the House Democratic Caucus’ weekly meeting Wednesday, according to leadership sources.

Steve McMahon, an close adviser to Dean, cast the governor’s appearance at the gatherings as “a more visible manifestation” of the behind-the-scenes work the newly installed chairman has done to allay Member concerns about his role.

McMahon pointed to Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha’s (D) relationship with Dean as an example of the legwork done by the former governor to bring influential Members into the fold.

“No one was even aware he was talking to Jack Murtha until Jack Murtha endorsed him,” said McMahon.

One of the most influential Congressional Democrats, Murtha provided Dean with a major boost on Capitol Hill during the DNC chairman race.

Murtha said he was urged to talk to Dean by West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan and was won over “when I looked at what he had done as the governor.”

Murtha, a leading Democratic supporter of the war in Iraq, acknowledged that some of his colleagues were surprised by his backing of Dean, who based much of his presidential campaign on his opposition to the war.

But, Murtha said that he and Dean share the same stance on gun control (they oppose it in most cases) and are supportive of fiscal restraint.

And, added Murtha, Dean is “not talking about policy, he is talking about reinvigorating the DNC.”

Murtha’s wooing is an example of the ongoing “education effort” with Members regarding Dean’s ideological stances, McMahon said.

“As [Members] become more and more acquainted with his record as governor they become more and more comfortable,” he added.

A number of Members, both during Dean’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2003 and 2004 as well as his campaign for DNC chairman, expressed concern that the liberal bent he demonstrated as a national candidate could jeopardize downballot candidates.

Dean allies have long maintained that he was mistakenly typecast as a liberal because of his opposition to the war in Iraq, noting that he was regularly endorsed by the National Rifle Association and balanced budgets during his tenure as governor.

“Vermont was a red state when he became governor,” McMahon noted.

Dean also appears to be benefiting from a growing sense within the Democratic Caucus that regardless of the ideology of its chairman, that individual will have to endure withering attacks from Republicans.

“Republicans are not going to stop going at a chairman because he is a Blue Dog or a New Democrat,” said one senior Democratic leadership aide. “At the very least this guy knows how to rally the troops.”

Brian Jones, communications director at the Republican National Committee, said his organization is not intensely focused on Dean but rather Democrats as a whole.

“We will be talking about certain issues where we will be disagreeing,” Jones said.

Dean has also extended perhaps the most persuasive olive branch to Democrats in Congress: money. He offered last week to use his fundraising firepower to aid the most endangered House Democrats.

These moves reveal a recognition on Dean’s part that he must overcome preconceived notions about his motives among Members of Congress.

To counter the idea that he views the DNC chairmanship as an opportunity to be the leading national spokesman for the party, Dean has rejected myriad requests to appear on Sunday talk shows and other national programs, according to his allies.

Instead, he has focused his attention locally, traveling to places like Kansas and Mississippi to show his dedication to reinvigorating the party’s grass roots in even the reddest of red states.

Even as he stumps in the hinterlands, however, Dean continues to reach out to Members — he spoke to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) by phone during his trip to the Magnolia State last month — relying on connections made during his presidential and DNC campaigns, as well as past relationships those in his inner circle enjoy within Congress.

During his meteoric rise from also-ran to frontrunner in the presidential contest, Dean racked up nearly 40 endorsements from Members, a group he has used as a foundation for his Congressional outreach as DNC chairman.

“That is a springboard or the first way in,” McMahon said.

Dean has also surrounded himself with a group of advisers — many of whom are currently serving on his transition team — who have longtime Hill connections.

“Everyone is reaching out to folks they are close to,” McMahon acknowledged.