Crowley’s Sights Still Atop Caucus

Posted March 23, 2009 at 6:33pm

Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.) is still gunning to climb the House Democratic leadership ladder, even as he moves to lead a moderate Caucus bloc and struggles to overcome a battered fundraising foundation on Wall Street.

There are no open slots in the leadership, but the question of the ambitious Queens Democrat’s longer-term goal was reframed by his decision late last week to take the helm of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition. The 68-Member group has established itself as a force under the leadership of Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), who, with no leadership designs of her own, had a free hand to confront Caucus leaders to protect the New Democrats’ priorities.

With Tauscher now poised to take a State Department post and other leaders of the coalition coalescing behind Crowley to replace her, Democratic aides and strategists are wondering if the move will prove a diversion or a steppingstone for him.

“If in fact Joe Crowley is weighing every decision based on his own leadership ambitions, that is going to hurt the New Dems,— one senior Democratic strategist said. “But I don’t think that will be the case, and he wouldn’t have done this if that was the case. The key question now is: If he does his job right, will it disqualify him Caucus-wide from being a leader?—

Crowley has been scrambling toward the upper reaches of House Democratic leadership since he arrived on Capitol Hill 10 years ago and got elected president of his freshman class. A fundraising dynamo, he has made his case in part by raising millions of dollars for the party.

But in a liberal Caucus, Crowley’s centrism has slowed his rise. He lost a 2006 bid for Caucus vice chairman and opted against another try in November, despite pressure from moderates, when it became clear that Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), a close ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), would make the race.

Crowley allies argue that leading an increasingly pivotal bloc of moderate lawmakers will demonstrate his leadership mettle to the broader Caucus. And they say he can advance the New Democrats’ agenda without creating undue headaches for leadership by building consensus for the group’s priorities.

“It’s all in the way you do things,— one senior Democratic aide said.

The coalition earned new relevance earlier this month when Tauscher put hard-nosed negotiating tactics to work in an intraparty debate over a mortgage measure. She took heat from liberals on and off the Hill for the performance, but she succeeded in compelling party leaders to pull the bill from the floor and rework some provisions.

In future debates that pit the group against the rest of the Caucus, some Democrats suggested Crowley could turn for assistance to Rep. Melissa Bean (Ill.), who is angling to replace him as the coalition’s whip. Like Tauscher, Bean has no desire to join the ranks of leadership and could therefore emerge in an enforcer role, these Democrats said. But one aide with close ties to the New Democrats said that was unlikely.

“At the end of the day, he will rely on all the vice chairs and won’t be limited to the whip to make sure he’s successful when we’ve staked a claim on something,— the aide said.

Taking on the top coalition gig would add another hat to the several Crowley is wearing: chairman of the Queens Democratic Party, Chief Deputy Majority Whip and, likely most taxing of all, vice chairman for finance of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

To date, Crowley’s main contribution to Democratic efforts in the House has been hauling in cash by the truckload for the DCCC. During the 2008 election cycle, he raised more than $7.6 million for the DCCC, handing over $325,000 in dues payments and steering $2.1 million to Democratic candidates in the committee’s “Red to Blue— and “Frontline— fundraising programs.

This cycle, a heavy burden again has been put on Crowley’s shoulders. Along with leading the coalition of moderates, the lawmaker is tasked with bringing in $6 million for the party committee and paying $300,000 in dues. According to a March DCCC fundraising tally, only Pelosi and DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) are expected to raise more money before Election Day 2010.

Adding to the pressure on Crowley this cycle is the state of his apparent go-to fundraising base: Wall Street. In an interview on Friday, before his intention to seek the chairmanship of the New Democrats became known, Crowley said he neither wants to “diminish— nor “overly emphasize— the firms’ roles in meeting his fundraising targets in recent years. But investment houses based just across the East River from his district undoubtedly were low-hanging fruit during recent boom years.

Although a sector-by-sector breakdown for his DCCC fundraising is unavailable, Crowley’s own re-election committee may give an indication of his reliance on Wall Street. According to CQ MoneyLine, Crowley raised roughly one quarter of his money from financial services firms in the previous cycle.

The six-term Democrat said his recent role as chairman of the DCCC’s business council has given him an opportunity to broaden his pool of potential donors, providing a new base in health care, energy and other “folks that we have a very strong connection with in terms of our growth agenda.—

“It certainly has helped to give entree to some [donors] who I otherwise wouldn’t know,— he said.

Crowley also promised that New York’s usually busy electoral landscape this cycle will not slow down his fundraising clip, nor will the competing interests of Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.). In 2010, the Empire State will host a gubernatorial race and two Senate contests.

“Politics in New York is a major league sport,— Crowley said. “It’s something we do just about every day.—

Crowley did acknowledge that he is up against a “number of obstacles— over the next two years, including a recession and the inevitable donor fatigue following “a very long, arduous presidential campaign.—

Democratic leadership doesn’t appear worried about Crowley spreading himself too thin.

Van Hollen said Crowley’s new role heading up the New Democrats “dovetails very well— with his fundraising responsibilities at the DCCC.

“We don’t have any problem with him wearing different hats — it’s a strength that he’s able to appeal … to many different groups,— Van Hollen said. “They’re mutually reinforcing: He’s got a good strong profile with the New Dems, which helps him with his DCCC outreach to certain groups.—

Democratic lobbyist Libby Greer, until recently the top aide to Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), said Crowley’s new position could strengthen the growing ties between New Democrats and another influential band of moderate House Democrats: the Blue Dog Coalition. The decision to name Crowley also could open up fundraising opportunities for the DCCC, which has had difficulty at times promoting the party’s agenda as pro-business, she said.

“If you look at the numbers that the New Dems and Blue Dogs have been able to raise over the past couple of years, that is money that the DCCC sometimes has trouble getting,— she said. “The Democratic Party continues to try to define themselves as better for business than people think they are, and Joe does wonders in helping them get there.—

Indeed, Crowley would not rule out a turn leading the DCCC one day. “No one works harder than Nancy Pelosi, and I’m here to support her and her efforts to help maintain control of the House,— Crowley said. “So far, they’ve found a way to exploit my talents in one way or another for the purpose of doing that.—