Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D)
Maryland 8th District
Colonial farmers once rolled barrels of tobacco to the port of Georgetown along an old road that is today the commercial spine of one of America’s most affluent and best-educated areas. Wisconsin Avenue begins at the Potomac River in Washington, D.C., traverses the city, and then becomes Rockville Pike once it arrives in suburban Montgomery County, Md. For several decades, Montgomery County has ranked at or near the top among counties nationwide in income and education. Like all of Washington’s suburbs, the county is a creature of the federal government, which has huge facilities there—Bethesda Naval Hospital, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Montgomery is also the center of America’s biotech industry, the home of firms such as Celera and Human Genome Sciences which, in parallel with the Human Genome Project, have pioneered the study of the human genetic code. Some of the federal labs have high-security classification because of their research into biohazards and infectious diseases.
2008 Presidential Vote
|Cook Partisan Voting Index|
The downside is, Wisconsin/Rockville Pike and other main arteries in the county are overburdened by development and traffic-choked, though the problem is an embarrassment of riches. Retail shops and other sources of commerce along the Pike are decidedly upscale, with expensive condos among the office towers and well-reviewed restaurants thriving in the suburb of Bethesda. New York Times columnist David Brooks mocked Bethesdans as “urban exiles” who frequent “anti-chain chain stores ... that cater to people who consider themselves too refined and individualistic to shop at the mall or the mass-market big-box stores.” Historically, the typical Montgomery County voter was a high-ranking civil servant. “A candidate knocking on doors in the 8th District can reasonably expect to be questioned about a government regulation by the person who wrote it,” once observed The Washington Post. But the picture is changing as growing private-sector employment outpaces government work, and new development reaches ever farther from D.C.’s borders to the far-flung cities of Gaithersburg and Germantown. Montgomery County is also becoming more racially and economically diverse. In 2006, the Census Bureau estimated that it was 17% African-American, 14% Hispanic, and 13% Asian. Many working-class neighborhoods have sprung up in Silver Spring and Wheaton just outside Washington.
The 8th Congressional District of Maryland includes most of the heavily populated parts of Montgomery County, which accounts for more than 90% of the district’s population. In 2002, redistricting added a slice of strongly Democratic territory in neighboring Prince George’s County. Perhaps the 8th’s most unique precinct is Leisure World in Silver Spring, with its 6,000-plus senior citizens and an extraordinarily high voter-turnout rate. Democratic candidates practically camp out there during the primary season. This is the most Democratic white-majority district in the state. But still, the district has the largest share of Latinos in Maryland.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D)
Elected: 2002, 4th term.
Born: Jan. 10, 1959, Karachi, Pakistan .
Education: Swarthmore Col., B.A. 1982, Harvard U., M.P.P. 1985, Georgetown U., J.D. 1990.
Family: Married (Katherine); 3 children.
Elected office: MD House of Delegates, 1990-94; MD Senate, 1994-2002.
The congressman from the 8th District is Chris Van Hollen, first elected in 2002 in one of the nation’s most competitive congressional races and now a major player in the House Democratic leadership. The son of a Foreign Service officer, Van Hollen was born in Pakistan, and grew up globally, living in several countries including the South Asian island of Sri Lanka, where his father was the U.S. ambassador. He graduated from Swarthmore College, and got a master’s degree from Harvard University and a law degree from Georgetown University. In the 1980s, he worked for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he co-authored a report on Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. In 1990, he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates and in 1994 to the state Senate. Wonky, self-assured, and telegenic, Van Hollen earned a prominent role in the Democratic House leadership after helping the party secure its majority in the chamber in 2006. He co-chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” strategy, and The Washington Post dubbed him the party’s “Mr. Fix-It.”
|Chris Van Hollen (D)||229,740||(75%)||($1,279,456)|
|Steve Hudson (R)||66,351||(22%)||($59,213)|
|Gordon Clark (Green)||6,828||(2%)||($36,305)|
|Chris Van Hollen (D)||104,108||(88%)|
|Deborah Vollmer (D)||11,052||(9%)|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (77%), 2004 (75%), 2002 (52%)
Van Hollen’s first race for Congress was his toughest by far. The 2002 contest attracted strong Democratic candidates who hoped to take advantage of redistricting changes that made the seat less friendly to longtime incumbent Connie Morella, a Republican moderate who had come to rely on crossover Democratic votes for her re-election victories. In the primary, Van Hollen had to compete against Del. Mark Shriver, a Kennedy cousin who had extensive labor support, and Ira Shapiro, a former Clinton administration trade official who touted his familiarity with federal policy issues. Bolstered by a crucial endorsement from The Post, Van Hollen defeated Shriver 43%-41%, with Shapiro getting 13%.
He then had only eight weeks to campaign against Morella, who was widely viewed as hard-working and congenial and who had a liberal voting record suited to the district’s many Democrats. Morella had voted against the use of military force in Iraq and was often out of step with the conservative Republican leadership in the House. Van Hollen did not directly attack Morella but argued that she was an enabler of the Republican majority, that her vote to organize the House with Republicans kept in power conservatives who were out of sync with most district voters. Morella criticized Van Hollen’s record in Annapolis, including his decision to quit a Senate subcommittee over proposed budget cuts. This time, The Post endorsed Morella, as did The Baltimore Sun. But it wasn’t enough. In a race in which the two candidates together spent nearly $6 million, Van Hollen won 52%-47%. Democrats had redrawn the district for the express purpose of defeating Morella, and the gambit worked. Nearly half of Van Hollen’s popular vote margin came from the piece of the district in Prince George’s County, which is majority African-American. He won there, 78%-21%. If the contest had been held in the old district, Morella probably would have won.
In the House, Van Hollen has been an activist liberal on most issues. In his first term, he scored an unexpected victory when he got the chamber—including 26 Republicans, some of them conservatives—to approve his amendment to limit a Republican plan to outsource more federal jobs. Despite that vote, the Bush administration eventually prevailed. He also worked on lobbying legislation to eliminate conflicts of interests in earmarks, the special provisions tucked into spending bills by individual members. In 2005, he began to move up in the party leadership with his appointment to co-chair the DCCC with Illinois Democrat Rahm Emanuel and to manage candidate recruitment and execution of the “Red to Blue” campaign plan. Working closely with Emanuel, the lower-key Van Hollen traveled to many battleground districts for hands-on candidate mentoring.
In 2007, with Democrats now in control of Congress, Van Hollen was rewarded with a seat on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. He focused on revisions to the Alternative Minimum Tax to benefit the middle class, changes in federal law to make prescription drugs more affordable for lower-income groups, and legislation to curb speculation and market manipulation that contributed to high oil and gas prices. He also worked with Emanuel to require lobbyists to make additional disclosure of campaign contributions. On local issues, he sought more money for the regional Metro transit system and for initiatives to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi showed her confidence in Van Hollen by appointing him to head the DCCC after Emanuel stepped down. In 2008, the Marylander worked closely with the new speaker on campaign strategy. In contrast to Emanuel’s strained relations with Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who like Emanuel is known for a fiery temperament, Van Hollen developed a harmonious relationship with Dean. Emphasizing that a “wave” election like 2006 almost always is followed by losses for the resurgent party, Van Hollen ran a smart operation that took advantage of opportunities. The party picked up important momentum with early victories in three Republican-held seats where incumbents had left midterm. Democrats won in springtime special elections in Illinois, Louisiana, and Mississippi in advance of the main show in the fall.
Democrats ultimately gained 21 seats in November, many of them in traditionally Republican areas, and Van Hollen and the DCCC got a good share of the credit. He protected the party’s large freshman class, typically the most vulnerable incumbents. Only four first-term Democrats—all of them in Republican-leaning areas—were defeated out of a class of 33. Van Hollen ran a skillful in-house research operation and expanded the field program. He also performed well in the most important function for any DCCC chairman—raising money. The committee took in $176 million in the 2008 cycle, compared with $118 million for its GOP counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee. Early and aggressive challenges to veteran GOP incumbents influenced the disproportionately high number of House Republican retirements: 26 GOP incumbents did not seek re-election in 2008. Though his party stood to gain from the coattails of its eventual Democratic presidential nominee that year, Van Hollen took nothing for granted. He created pickup opportunities in red-state districts, including some in Alabama and Idaho, where candidates needed help with get-out-the-vote operations. “When I took over as chairman, I was determined to stay on the offensive and increase the majority,” he said in May 2008. “We don’t need to hunker down or circle the wagons.”
At home, Van Hollen’s earnest approach has made him nearly invulnerable to a challenge, and his is now considered a safe Democratic seat. Following the retirement of Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland in early 2005, Van Hollen gave serious thought to jumping into the multicandidate Democratic primary. But at the urging of Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, and with the likely prospect of his advancement in the House, he decided against it. Although he was initially reluctant to take on another grueling two years as DCCC chairman, Pelosi persuaded him to stay on for the 2010 election cycle, giving him the additional title of assistant to the speaker. In 2009, the new position gave him more opportunity to coordinate policy with his close ally Emanuel, who had left the House to become President Obama’s chief of staff, and to help manage the inevitable conflicts between the White House and Congress. If he chooses to remain in the House, Van Hollen is young enough—and the more senior House leaders are old enough—to allow him to move into the top ranks within the decade. But he no doubt will also keep his eye on a possible run for the Senate.