Dean Mending Fences on the Hill

Posted March 28, 2007 at 6:55pm

After two years of private — and occasionally public — friction between their Congressional leaders and their national party chairman, Democrats say the level of coordination and the personal relationships between Howard Dean and his House and Senate counterparts have improved markedly in the 110th Congress.

Since Dean assumed the helm of the Democratic National Committee in early 2005, cooperation between the party chief and leaders on Capitol Hill was hampered by sparring over spending priorities and funding of competitive House and Senate contests. Dean’s proclivity for off-the-cuff remarks and tendency to spark controversy further fueled his tense relations with some Members of Congress.

But with new Democratic majorities now controlling the House and Senate agenda, party insiders say Dean has settled into his role as chairman and that relations with his Hill counterparts appear to be running more smoothly.

“We are cooperating going forward,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said in a recent interview, adding that despite some internal party dust-ups with Dean in the past, “everyone is on the same page” heading into 2008.

The most recent example of that cooperation came on the Iraq supplemental spending bill, when House Democrats took Dean up on his offer to make calls to whip support from liberal Democrats for the measure and its timeline for troop withdrawal from Iraq. The bill passed the House by a thin margin last week.

Dean regularly squabbled with Van Hollen’s DCCC predecessor, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), who believed the DNC’s 2006 fundraising strategy relied too heavily on a national blueprint at the expense of key House and Senate races.

After Van Hollen became chairman he said he welcomed Dean for a tour of the DCCC offices and introductions to staff. Looking ahead, Van Hollen said Democrats are coordinating with Dean on the party’s political plans, and the DNC chairman also gave the DCCC an early “good faith” donation — a measure that knowledgeable Democrats said has been done before.

Asked about Dean’s penchant for attracting negative publicity, Van Hollen said, “I don’t think he’s a liability. We are now in leadership in Congress. Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] and Majority Leader [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] are the spokesmen for our party. That’s who people are listening to. Dean understands that and defers to them.”

For his part, Emanuel — who now serves as House Democratic Caucus chairman —said, “I spent two long years doing a lot of politics and I appreciate those who continue to do it and carry on the fight. Howard Dean and I have a lot of shared goals and I think our party is meeting those goals and getting better every day. But for me, now is a time for governing.”

With the country heading into a closely watched presidential election cycle that is headlined by the star-studded Democratic candidacies of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), Dean will no doubt take a secondary role to the party’s eventual nominee.

As one former Democratic House leadership aide put it: “Nobody ever cares about the DNC chair in that environment.”

But one of Dean’s primary responsibilities — fundraising — remains unchanged.

Dean faced public criticism from some on the Hill in the previous cycle not only because the DNC’s fundraising lagged behind its GOP counterpart but also because the DNC had a much higher burn rate, leaving the committee far behind the Republicans in available cash on hand.

So far this cycle the DNC is keeping closer pace with the Republican National Committee. At the end of February the DNC showed $7 million in the bank while the RNC had more than $10.7 million on hand. The DNC is still shouldering $4 million in debt from the previous cycle, money that the committee diverted to Congressional races.

The DNC expects to report raising $14 million in the first three months of 2007. By comparison, the committee took in $8.3 million in the first three months of 2003, the beginning of the previous presidential cycle.

Through the end of February, the RNC had raised almost $17.7 million.

DNC aides said the success in early fundraising also is proof that Dean has now gained the confidence of major Democratic donors. Contributions from major donors also were up by $1.5 million in the first quarter, compared to the previous presidential cycle.

Congressional leaders and even rank-and-file Democrats also are pitching in more with the fundraising effort, with committee chairmen and Members regularly holding fundraisers for the DNC.

“Democrats are united and working closely together,” said DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton. “Chairman Dean meets and talks regularly with Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid and other Members of Congress.”

Part of Dean’s focus at the DNC has been to expand the party’s playing field and build back the party base and its grass-roots organization — a strategy that prompted some intraparty fighting in the previous cycle.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he has never viewed Dean as a liability for the party. He said the Democratic gains in the 2006 elections won over some critics of Dean’s 50-state strategy and that in general these days he hears only positive reviews.

“I think people look at that work and appreciate it,” Menendez said. “I think he’s brought a lot of enthusiasm to the party, brought a grass-roots movement to the party that the party desperately needed. He’s helped build a foundation in states across the country that often were ignored, which we’ve seen in this last cycle how we can win in them.”

Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) concurred, calling the effort to build a 50-state party “the most important hallmark” of Dean’s tenure.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a 2008 presidential contender, said that while there was some apparent “contention with the House and Senate committees for money” in 2006, Dean deserves high marks for trying to give the DNC a much-needed face-lift.

Dodd, who served as DNC general chairman in the 1996 cycle, said for the first time in a long time the DNC has a relationship with lawmakers and there’s coordination between the Congressional committees and the traditional presidential fundraising arm.

“He’s building opportunities, he’s beginning a process to have a [larger] bench,” Dodd said. “I have a deep appreciation for what’ he’s trying to do. It’s tough.”

Dean assumed the helm of the DNC following his failed 2004 bid for the White House. Congressional support for the former Vermont governor initially was mixed, with many Democrats fearing he was too unpredictable and at times too far left for a party trying to appeal to voters in conservative states and districts across the country.

Some of those concerns among moderate Democrats have yet to be assuaged. Privately, some Members said they welcome what they see as the quieter side of the DNC chairman these days. Whether that’s by design or circumstances, it is a positive development, they said.

“He needs to focus on raising money and doing the things he’s been doing, which is organizing and developing state organizations to gear up for the 2008 election,” said one House Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Still, many Hill Democrats say Dean deserves some of the credit for the historic electoral gains in 2006.

“The results speak for themselves,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Reid. “The fact is that Gov. Dean and his operation at the DNC played an important role in the Democrats’ success last November. Anyone that may have doubted his leadership at the DNC learned quickly that he is a force to be reckoned with.”

But that hasn’t stopped Republicans from continuing to single Dean out as the controversial face of the Democratic Party. And even while key Republicans acknowledge the DNC chairman seems to have adopted a lower profile these days, they say he’s still a dangerous political figure for the Democrats.

“I think he’s gone undercover for a reason,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). “The Democrats don’t want him out there. He’s a liability for them. He’s so inflammatory and so partisan in rhetoric at a time when Democrats are talking about winning over moderates. He alienates people.”

Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), who serves as general chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he’s not so sure if Dean “is any different [than] he ever was,” but the former Vermont governor certainly hasn’t won more fans in the opposing party’s camp. Martinez said he, like many Republicans, was particularly offended to learn that Dean recently began meeting with international leaders to try to improve the nation’s diplomatic ties.

“That’s the job of the commander in chief,” Martinez said. “Not only is that incredibly arrogant, but it’s disruptive to our own foreign policy.”