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Rahm's Rainmakers

May 27, 2006

It was a strategic hit, and apparently somewhat successful. Less than a week before Pennsylvania's May 16 primary, freshman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., held a conference call with reporters from the northeastern part of the state to announce that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had designated Rep. Don Sherwood, R-Pa., as "Crony of the Week."

This is "an accomplishment that I don't know that anyone would want to achieve," Wasserman Schultz said in a story that ran atop page one of the Times-Leader newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. She said that Sherwood received the award for "loyally toeing the party line and supporting special-interest Medicare legislation that is confusing, expensive, and little more than a payoff to the pharmaceutical companies and HMOs."

In Sherwood's solidly Republican district, which gave President Bush 60 percent of its vote in 2004, the four-term lawmaker was surprisingly held to a paltry 56 percent of the primary vote against a GOP opponent who failed to spend the $5,000 required to file as a federal candidate. Sherwood said he was the victim of "an anti-incumbent wave" that brought down more than a dozen state GOP legislators that night. But, no doubt, other factors contributed to his embarrassing performance, not the least of which was his admission last year that he had had a five-year affair in Washington and had reached a legal settlement with his former mistress.

 

Whatever the reason, the Democratic candidate in the district, Naval Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Chris Carney, suddenly appears to have a chance against a damaged Republican, in the view of some leading political experts. The New York Times even identified Sherwood's district in a front-page piece on May 21 as among "a handful of once-safe Republican congressional seats that have come into play" over the past week.

Wasserman Schultz's high-profile needling of Sherwood just before the primary was no accident. Soon after Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., took over as DCCC chairman last year, he tapped her and seven other junior House Democrats who shared his frustration about the party's continuing minority status to serve as his lieutenants at the campaign committee. Together, Emanuel and these young guns are running a different kind of DCCC, one that is far more aggressive and hands-on and that is already enjoying some success in expanding opportunities for Democrats to finally win back House control in November.

"We have much more member involvement than in the past," Wasserman Schultz said. "It's important to have members run this program. We can do better in motivating others."

Wasserman Schultz and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Emanuel's two chief lieutenants at the DCCC, credit him with rejuvenating the campaign committee's operations. Emanuel brings "total commitment," Wasserman Schultz said. "He lives and breathes this. And he has a unique political sense. He has the 'it' quality, which I can't tangibly describe. But the job gets done, and he inspires tremendous confidence."

"Rahm," Van Hollen added, "has incredible knowledge of campaign dynamics, strategic vision, and the big picture. He knows the country and the districts. And he is high-octane."

High-octane, indeed. Emanuel's inexhaustible energy and his brash, in-your-face style are well known around Washington, going back to his days as a strategist and confidant during Bill Clinton's two presidential campaigns and his prominent role as an aide at the Clinton White House.

What is less known is that behind the scenes over the past year and a half, Emanuel has quietly recast the DCCC to reflect the abundant political skills, resources, and contacts that he has accumulated as one of the nation's most facile campaign operatives. After only two terms in the House, the ambitious 46-year-old has positioned himself as one of the most powerful rising stars on Capitol Hill.

Insiders say that Emanuel has assumed hands-on control over virtually all DCCC operations -- a stark contrast to the House Democrats' past decade in the minority, when the campaign committee was tightly controlled by the minority leader, first Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and then Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Other recent DCCC chairmen -- Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I. (who held the job in 1999 and 2000); Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y. (2001-2002); and the late Rep. Robert Matsui, D-Calif. (2003-2004) -- had a softer touch.

"This is Rahm's operation, more than has been the case in the past," said a Democratic source. He added that the nimble Emanuel has at times even pre-empted Pelosi on party communications and message. "So long as things continue to go right," the source said, "I think that the leader is comfortable with this."

Judging by Pelosi's high praise for Emanuel during a recent interview with National Journal, she seems quite pleased with the job he is doing. "I frankly don't think we could be better served than having Rahm Emanuel there," Pelosi said. "It's a real comfort for me that he's there, and I think [Democrats] know that he is our field marshal in this effort to take back the House for the American people.

"It requires some tough decision-making, and it's one of the things I say about Rahm," Pelosi continued. "He's brilliant, he's articulate, he's politically astute, and he's as cold-blooded as I need him to be to make the decisions. Now, that's not a charming feature. But it's an absolutely necessary one in what we are doing."

Others in the House Democratic leadership are also high on Emanuel. "Rahm Emanuel is a unique and extraordinary asset for the Democratic Party," said Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who works closely with him.

Emanuel's White House experience, combined with his political sophistication, "give him a level of credibility in arguing for people to take action," said a veteran Democratic leadership aide. "He has all the credentials to run a national campaign. He knows people in 300 districts. He has a laser-like focus on winning back the House.... Some sitting members and candidates don't like the DCCC chairman telling them what to do. But if Rahm points out problems knowledgeably, he can confront them in a credible way."

Emanuel has even earned the respect of his GOP counterpart, Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "He is a good pol, and he makes my game better," Reynolds said.

During a recent interview at his campaign committee office, the hyperkinetic Emanuel said that his experiences with Bill Clinton were valuable preparation for his current post. "I have raised money before. I have done rapid response before. I've done recruiting of candidates," he said.

At times in the interview, Emanuel was his own toughest critic. "Of course I have failures. Do you know anybody that bats a thousand?" And he was more cautious than other House Democratic leaders about this year's election prospects. "For a Type A personality like me, the truth is that I have very little control over this." But he made clear that Democrats are driving the campaign's dynamics. "Who's on offense and who's on defense?" Emanuel asked with a smile.

Becoming "Rahm-Bo"

That Emanuel long ago earned the nickname "Rahm-bo" is no surprise, given several tales about his hard-nosed intensity that have circulated around Washington for years and that have been repeated in profiles in the Chicago papers, and in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Rolling Stone.

The stories go that Emanuel once sent a rotting fish to a rival pol; that he lost part of his middle finger to a Syrian tank while serving in the Israeli army; and that at a dinner celebrating Clinton's 1992 election, Emanuel repeatedly pounded a steak knife into the table and shouted "Dead! ... Dead! ... Dead!" as he ticked off the names of political enemies.

The story about Emanuel's finger isn't true -- he lost it to a meat slicer while working at Arby's as a teenager. He did volunteer with the Israeli army for about 10 days after the 1991 Persian Gulf War broke out and was assigned the job of cleaning brakes at a supply base. Yet, even though several media reports over the past decade have discounted the tale of Emanuel's finger and his supposed military escapades, the tale lives on.

Emanuel is the son of an Israeli-born pediatrician who had served in the underground during that nation's struggle for independence before immigrating to the United States in 1959, and of an American Jewish mother who became a psychiatric social worker. He grew up in a northern Chicago suburb that Donald Rumsfeld represented in Congress.

Emanuel's mother reportedly urged him to take ballet lessons as off-season training for soccer, and he later went to Sarah Lawrence University, partly because of its dance program. Although his life took a different direction, he still practices ballet from time to time.

During the 1980s, Emanuel had several political jobs, including as an aide at the DCCC, then chaired by Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif., and as a fundraiser for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. In those roles, Emanuel gained valuable experience from tough political operators who, their critics have charged, sometimes came close to skirting the law.

Emanuel joined the Clinton campaign in 1991 and went on to hold the title of deputy chief of staff for policy and planning in the White House. He was an architect of Clinton's "Third Way" strategy. Emanuel "honed to a science ... the proposal-a-day presidency," Howard Kurtz wrote in Spin Cycle, his 1998 book on "the Clinton propaganda machine."

At the White House, Emanuel earned a reputation as abrasive yet highly effective. After Clinton's 1996 campaign, White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles told reporters, "What I've always admired about Rahm Emanuel is that he gets things done, he gets them done on time, and he gets them done right. In other words, Rahm Emanuel gets results."

"Rahm is relentless," added Marcia Hale, who was his first boss at the DCCC in 1985 and later was a colleague for five years as Clinton's scheduler and then White House assistant for intergovernmental affairs. "He wants to win, but he also cares about policy, and it's what makes him tick."

During his White House years, Emanuel occasionally ruffled congressional feathers -- including those of some Democrats. One example was the controversial vote in late 1993 to approve the North American Free Trade Agreement. "That was a tough vote for me," Lowey recounted. "Rahm worked a full-court press.... He understands politics, the news media, and how to get public attention."

Emanuel left the White House in 1998 and returned to Chicago to make millions as an investment banker. In 2002, during his hard-fought Democratic primary campaign to fill an open House seat, opponents revived the stories about his service in the Israeli army.

During a Pulaski Day celebration, Ed Moskal -- the president of the local Polish American Congress and a leading backer of Emanuel's chief primary opponent, Nancy Kaszak -- attacked Emanuel as "a citizen of another country [who] served in their armed forces for two years." Although Kaszak quickly termed the remarks "inappropriate," Moskal refused to retract them or apologize, and the incident appeared to backfire on Kaszak. (Emanuel is an Orthodox Jew who observes the Sabbath with his wife, Amy, and their three children -- ages 9, 7, and 6.)

In the House, Emanuel's voting record puts him in the middle of his Democratic colleagues. And, as DCCC chairman, he has occasionally been attacked by bloggers on the left.

Emanuel teamed with Bruce Reed -- Clinton's former chief domestic policy adviser who is president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council -- to write a book called The Plan, scheduled for publication in August. In an interview, Reed said that he and his friend of 15 years launched the project because "voters across the country come to us and say the country is in a mess, and they ask us how we plan to fix it." The initial idea was Emanuel's, Reed said. "He is a nonstop fount of ideas."

Although Reed gave few specifics, he said that the book will cover "a whole gamut of issues," including restoring progressivity to the tax code, "helping people get rich," education, and national security. Asked if it will address Social Security, he said, "We don't have all the answers to everything. This is not a Democratic platform." The book is separate from his DCCC duties, Emanuel said, adding, "I am a member of Congress." Asked whether The Plan might become an issue in this year's campaign, Emanuel replied, "Republicans will read it and learn a lot."

GOP strategists have, in fact, been gleefully planning for the book's release. "Its impact will depend on its contents. If he calls for a tax increase, that could be damaging to Democratic candidates," said Carl Forti, the NRCC's communications director. It's not difficult to speculate that GOP campaign operatives would highlight topics where the new book diverges, for example, from views espoused by Pelosi or Democratic candidates. On areas of Democratic agreement, Republicans might use the book to warn of the consequences of a Democratic takeover.

Inside the DCCC

Emanuel's old friend Hale said he is a natural for the DCCC chairmanship, even if he is serving just his second term in the House. "You need somebody who is aggressive and drives them as hard as possible," she said. "He knows how the mechanics work. He knows how to move policy. And he pulls levers to have an impact.... Is he too strong for some? Yes. But he's so smart and quick that people are crazy not to deal with him."

Hale also praised Emanuel's managerial skills, which are essential at the DCCC. "Even if he's obnoxious, you know that he gets the job done," she said. "He checks things off."

When the House is in session, Emanuel checks in with his top DCCC lieutenants at a Thursday morning meeting where they compare notes about campaign developments and make new assignments. "The sheer drama of the Thursday meetings makes them worthwhile," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., one of the lieutenants. "Rahm doesn't mince words. There is a charm to his brashness. He is a character, and people admire that."

Perhaps more importantly, Emanuel keeps regular tabs, by way of his well-worn BlackBerry and cellphone, on the A-list of House Democratic candidates, which is more than two dozen strong -- and growing. He and his lieutenants set out detailed requirements for candidates to receive DCCC support, including benchmarks for fundraising, local news clips, and grassroots organization, Wasserman Schultz said. Van Hollen added, "We have made it clear to candidates that they have to meet certain goals to be successful. We let them know how intense this will be."

One Democratic candidate Emanuel calls often is Patricia Madrid, New Mexico's attorney general who is challenging five-term Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., in one of the nation's most competitive House districts. Madrid was initially reluctant to run for Congress, but Emanuel convinced her that it was vital for the party to retake the House. She regards Emanuel with a mixture of affection, awe, and dependence.

"I talk to him on a regular basis. It's always fun. He has great insight and is a cheerleader," Madrid said. "I am a very strong woman.... I can get in his face. But he's not easily offended. He's a very secure man."

Although Emanuel successfully wooed Madrid, a veteran politician who has won two statewide races, Republicans scoff at his overall candidate-recruitment record. The NRCC has compiled a list of 33 "DCCC delusions" in 21 districts -- prospects whom the DCCC pressed into running or who initially voiced interest in a campaign but ultimately did not take the plunge. One House GOP member contended that although Emanuel is "smart," he has failed in key opportunities to recruit "first-tier" challengers.

With few, if any, Democratic lawmakers expected to face a serious re-election threat, the House election is focusing on the relative handful of open seats in each party, plus the growing number of GOP members in re-election jeopardy. For Democrats to gain the 15 seats required for a House takeover, they need to reverse the recent poor performances of their challengers. Not since 1996 have Democratic challengers knocked off more than five Republican incumbents at a time.

Emanuel's supporters defend his batch of challengers. "The DCCC chairman can't compel somebody to run," Schiff said. "But, by all measures, our recruiting has been a great success compared to recent cycles."

In many battleground contests where the DCCC failed to recruit experienced contenders, Democrats are relying on novice candidates who critics say could make mistakes or succumb to campaign pressure. Supporters counter that in a year in which anti-incumbent sentiment seems strong, these challengers can run as political outsiders and provide enthusiasm and fresh thinking.

A large proportion of the top Democratic contenders are women. With vital help from EMILY's List, which recruits and finances Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights, at least 14 of the Democratic nominees in the 36 most-competitive GOP-held House seats will likely be women, according to the most recent listing of The Cook Political Report. "In an environment for change, women candidates tend to excel," said Martha McKenna, campaign services director for EMILY's List. She praised Emanuel for working closely with her group in recruiting candidates. "He looks for the best candidates. It happens that many are women."

Many of those candidates visited Washington in mid-May as part of an EMILY's List conference. Lawyer Lois Murphy, who is making a second bid for Congress after losing narrowly in 2004 to Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa., said she is grateful for the DCCC's backing in the expensive media market of her suburban Philadelphia district. Emanuel visited her district in January to designate Gerlach as the first member of the "Rubber-Stamp Congress." Murphy doesn't mind the tough standards that Emanuel sets for Democratic candidates, she says. "Most of my conversations with Rahm are how we are meeting our goals."

Of course, although Democratic challengers welcome the DCCC's help, some are wary of appearing to be too closely tied to Washington. "People will be electing me -- not Rahm Emanuel or anybody else," said Mary Jo Kilroy, a county commissioner who is challenging House GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio. Pryce, who has not faced a competitive race since she was first elected in 1992, said that Kilroy's challenge is "100 percent DCCC.... Every play is out of their playbook, and they are trying to make this a national race." Pryce contended, "My constituents will see through that game and will judge me by my record."

In addition to staying in constant phone and e-mail contact with his candidates, Emanuel travels frequently to make visits on their behalf and to raise money for the DCCC. He has appeared in about a dozen of the battleground districts, focusing on those where his presence can assist the Democratic challengers to GOP incumbents.

Wasserman Schultz and Van Hollen are co-chairing the DCCC's "Red to Blue" program, a fundraising effort to assist the leading nonincumbent candidates who have met the campaign committee's performance standards. Wasserman Schultz said that the current goal is to raise $10 million to distribute among 45 or 50 contenders. The DCCC this month announced the first group of 16 candidates who will receive funds; the next two lists are expected in June and August.

Republicans poked fun because the Red to Blue program's initial announcement included 22 Democratic candidates who would be part of the effort, but the recent list left off six names -- some of whom still face party primaries -- who allegedly didn't make the grade in the DCCC's eyes. "This was a major embarrassment," said the NRCC's Forti. (Democrats dismiss the criticism and say that all 22 candidates will eventually be in the program.)

Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., who chairs the DCCC's business council, said that one upbeat measure of Democratic prospects is the increased financial support from the business community. Crowley expects business contributions to increase from $8 million in 2004 to $10 million this year.

Overall, DCCC fundraising has improved under Emanuel's leadership. The DCCC's receipts rose to $57.7 million in the first 15 months of the current election cycle, a 45 percent increase from the same period in the 2003-2004 cycle. The NRCC retained its lead in total money raised, with $83.3 million, although that was a 10 percent dip for the GOP committee from the previous cycle. In the potentially more significant cash-on-hand category, the Democrats have eliminated the GOP's long-standing advantage. As of April 30, each committee had roughly $22.8 million in the bank.

Despite the improved fundraising, Emanuel recently got into a blowup with Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean over the DNC's financial backing for the DCCC. Emanuel stormed out of Dean's office emitting a trail of expletives, The Washington Post reported on May 11. "Emanuel's fury ... was over his concern that Dean's DNC is spending its money too freely and too early in the election cycle -- a 'burn rate' that some strategists fear will leave the party unable to help candidates compete on equal terms with Republicans this fall," The Post said.

In a pinch, might Emanuel's old boss Bill Clinton lend his formidable fundraising prowess to help House Democratic candidates in the final months of the campaign? Some insiders think so, and the DCCC chairman remains in close contact with the Clinton network. Emanuel's friends and other Democratic sources said that he speaks frequently with the former president.

"All of us who worked with Bill Clinton talk to him every chance that we get," Reed said. "Rahm and I wouldn't be where we are, or think as we do, if it wasn't for Bill Clinton.... He was extremely helpful in Rahm's [2002] campaign."

The Crystal Ball

While Emanuel doesn't publicly go too far out on a limb, Wasserman Schultz and Van Hollen both confidently predict that Democrats will win House control in November. They believe the low public-approval scores for Bush and for the GOP-controlled Congress have significantly increased Democrats' opportunities.

"Voters need to understand that this is a national election. They get that Republicans control the House, Senate, and White House, and that they need to be held accountable for enabling Republican leadership to move their agenda," Van Hollen said. He predicted "a number of surprises in November.... You see in many districts a sea change in attitudes."

Wasserman Schultz added, "Local polling shows that people are fed up across the country with cronyism, corruption, and a rubber-stamp Congress." She noticed late last year "a palpable shift in our ability to recruit candidates," she said, and -- "oh, yeah!" -- a more upbeat attitude among House Democrats.

Outside of Emanuel's immediate circle, other Democrats also credit him for taking advantage of a favorable political climate. "Rahm has changed the previous strategy of a limited number of competitive contests," said an experienced House Democratic aide.

Still, other insiders are wary of their party's current euphoria. "Our opportunities look best the farther away you are from a district," said another senior Democratic aide. "Conditions don't remain static. Republicans this summer will shift to social issues and hope that Iraq gets better.... They have time to recoup."

For now, Republicans are clearly worried. "If the election were held today, the Republican majority would likely yield to a new Democratic majority," Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., the chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, said during a recent interview with National Journal.

Another House GOP member privately predicted that if the election were held this month, his party's lack of accomplishments could cost Republicans as many as 30 House seats.

But November remains a long way off, and Republicans hope that the proven strength of their incumbents will prevail. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who served as a consultant and as the NRCC's executive director and who is campaigning to chair the NRCC next year, conceded that Republicans have a "healthy respect" for Emanuel, who, he said, "brings a professionalism and a focus that are exceptional." Cole called Emanuel "one of the most colorful practitioners of my profession."

Cole cautioned, however, that Emanuel and his Democratic allies don't have the election in the bag. "They won't catch us napping, as happened to the Democrats in 1994," Cole said. "We have a much tougher group of members, and we never had the opportunity to get lazy."

Aside from the candidates themselves, perhaps no one has more on the line on November 7 than Emanuel. If Democrats win back the House, it's a good bet that he will move up the party's leadership ladder.

Significantly, the three top House Democratic leaders -- Pelosi, Hoyer, and Caucus Chairman James Clyburn, D-S.C. -- are all 65 or 66, which suggests that it won't be many years before the baton is passed to Emanuel's generation. Probably the two best-known DCCC chairmen were Tony Coelho and Lyndon B. Johnson, eager young politicos who used the post as a stepping-stone. Emanuel may have the smarts, connections, and future prospects of those two men.

"With his great grasp of politics and policy, I believe that Rahm Emanuel eventually will be the speaker of the House," said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., one of Emanuel's DCCC lieutenants.

Lots of hurdles stand in the way of that heady prospect. But the mere possibility is another measure of the huge stakes in this year's battle for House control.

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