Larson Defends Strategy in Caucus Contest

Posted July 26, 2005 at 6:49pm

Despite a perception that Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) is running a flagging campaign for Caucus vice chairman, he and his allies are defending his strategy of keeping many of his supporters’ names secret and insisting that he’s in a dead heat with his two rivals.

Larson is vying with Reps. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) for the fourth-ranking House Democratic leadership post, currently held by Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.).

The position isn’t vacant until 2006, but could open up early next year if Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine wins the New Jersey governorship and appoints House Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez to fill his Senate seat, allowing Clyburn to move up a rung.

Larson lags far behind Crowley and Schakowsky in the number of public endorsements claimed so far. Crowley leads the pack with 47 backers, followed by Schakowsky with 43 and Larson with 18.

While Crowley and Schakowsky continue to expand their list of public supporters, Larson has decided to keep quiet, making a selling point of his campaign’s decision to keep secret the names of most of his endorsements. The Connecticut lawmaker and his public and private backers add that while his tactics differ from those of his rivals, he has the same level of support.

“This is three-person race,” Larson said Tuesday. “There will be a second ballot to determine winner is, and we’re in it all the way. I have no intention of getting out. This is a dead heat by our count.”

“I think we have a very solid strategy, and I think it’s working for us,” Larson continued.

Larson and his allies contend that there are between 40 and 60 Members of the Caucus of 203 that are still in play and that each of the three candidates has 40 to 60 solid backers. The Larson team laid out several names of senior and well-placed Members who are on board, and they privately confirmed to Roll Call their commitment to him.

Larson added that, “people may or may not dispute” his head count, but is confident of his standing and comfortable with his approach of avoiding the public name game.

One Member and Larson supporter said that many in the Caucus prefer to keep their powder dry because they want to keep their friendships intact. This Member added that there is no doubt in the Caucus that “John is a serious candidate” in the race.

“I, for one, appreciate that John isn’t pressing us to go public, and I think that’s helping him round up more support,” the lawmaker said.

Rep. Alan Mollohan (W.Va.), a new public backer of Larson’s, said he’s committed to his colleague not because of his no-pressure-to-go-public strategy, but because he would bring balance to Caucus leadership and relates well to Members “across different ideologies and personalities.”

“I can only imagine John has support equal to anybody else’s at this point,” Mollohan said. “I’m not counting heads, but that’s my sense of it from him and from talking to other Members.”

But while Larson believes his approach is paying off, Crowley and Schakowsky remain confident of their campaign strategies. On Tuesday they again touted their respective tactics.

“I am approaching this race much like I would approach the role of Vice Chair — reaching out and listening carefully to Members throughout the Caucus, utilizing the many talents of my whip team, and continuing to help build toward a Democratic majority in the House by giving and raising money,” Schakowsky said. “I’m proud of my public supporters as well as the many private commitments I have received.”

Crowley, for his part, said, “I am grateful for the support of 47 of my colleagues who believe in the values and vision I would bring to this important position. By being public, these people are not only going to support me on election day, but the vast majority of them are working day in and day out in support of my campaign.”

At the same time, another Larson backer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that many Members feel the vice chairman’s race is premature and believe it is unnecessary for a public horse race to be under way already. Many Members are “fed up” with the race already, and are offended by pressures to publicly join up with one camp, the Member said.

“John has done it right,” said this lawmaker. “I haven’t told anybody how I’m going to go except for John. [Going public] just leads to division and a schism that doesn’t need to exist right now.”

Going public with names has traditionally been seen as a key indicator of a candidate’s strength in a Caucus leadership race. Many Members view the number of public endorsements as a test of loyalty and commitment to a particular candidate, and the best way to ensure a solid vote count.

“Because it’s a secret ballot, it’s difficult enough to trust your commitments, but it is just human nature that if you make a public commitment for somebody that it would be more difficult for you to go back on your word,” suggested one senior House Democratic aide.

But another long-time staffer said that strategy can slice both ways. Regardless of the approach, the staffer said, “You never truly know what your numbers are until votes are cast.”

Larson said Caucus races have been run and won by candidates who haven’t revealed their supporters, including Clyburn. He said that running the race in itself is a risk, and he doesn’t believe his approach is any riskier, nor does it “hurt us at all.”

He said there are legitimate reasons why Members would want to keep their names under wraps, including the feeling that the race has begun too early, that they have friendships in all three camps and believe they believe the contest should remain out of the headlines because it is an “internal Caucus matter.”

Asked whether he can trust his private supporters to stick with him, Larson said: “I’ve been around this business long enough to know that you look somebody in the eye, and they shake your hand and tell them they are with you, then that’s a pretty good indication that they are going to be there.”

One of Larson’s supporters said colleagues can trust colleagues regardless of whether they go public. “We know each other well, and I think in this situation a person’s word is his bond,” the supporter said. “Most of the people feel like that.”