Meet the Powers Behind the Democrats’ Strategy
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the hyperactive Democrat from Illinois charged with winning control of the House for his party in the 2006 elections, was trying to goad a colleague to move into attack mode.
And so he phoned. And phoned. And phoned again.
For days, Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) received about three calls daily from Emanuel, urging him to run a political advertisement criticizing the Bush administration’s decision to let an Arab company manage U.S. ports, an issue sparking nationwide outrage at the time. With Vice President Dick Cheney heading south to campaign for Spratt’s GOP opponent, Emanuel thought the best response was to run an attack ad in the local newspaper -- quickly.
“Rahm smelled blood,” said Chuck Fant, Spratt’s press secretary. “He latched on like a pit bull and never let go.”
Spratt finally agreed to put out a news release, one that was less in-your-face than Emanuel wanted. But the fact that the lawmaker was prompted to act at all was a tribute to the intensity, persistence and abrasiveness that Emanuel has brought to his job as field marshal of the Democrats’ battle for the House.
Those edgy traits are shared by Emanuel’s counterpart in the party’s fight to gain Senate seats -- Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York. It is a convergence that has gladdened the hearts of many Democrats; both men are credited with having boosted the party’s chances for a strong showing in November. But, in the bottom-line world of politics, both will share the blame if those expectations are not met.
Emanuel, 46, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Schumer, 55, head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, have deployed tactics reminiscent of the smoke-filled rooms of yore.
They have hand-picked candidates, crafted campaign themes, set fundraising goals and micromanaged staff hiring decisions for candidates around the country. In the process, these two big-city pols -- Emanuel from Chicago, Schumer from Brooklyn -- are injecting a dose of discipline and drive among traditionally unruly Democrats, who often suffer from the image that they are too soft. “Both in terms of raising money and recruiting candidates, no one is more focused and disciplined,” said Steve Elmendorf, former top aide to ex-House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). “They do this 24/7 at 100% velocity every day. This is the focus we need.”
Emanuel and Schumer bring the kind of whip hand to campaigning that leading Republicans have wielded for years. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) tutored conservative candidates via audiotapes as he led the GOP to its landmark 1994 election victory, which gave the party control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. More recently, President Bush and his political guru, Karl Rove, have been heavily involved in recruiting candidates -- efforts credited with helping the GOP maintain its congressional majorities in the 2002 and 2004 elections.
Emanuel and Schumer have brought an aggressive intensity to the 2006 campaign that is akin to the famed treatment used by Lyndon B. Johnson, former president and Senate majority leader, to sway lawmakers.
Those who have received the Emanuel treatment include Heath Shuler, a retired NFL quarterback trying to topple a House Republican in North Carolina. When he was deciding whether to run, Schuler told Emanuel he was worried that serving in Congress would cut into time with his children. In response, Emanuel peppered Shuler with dozens of phone calls over two weeks to report what he was doing with his own three kids.
“He calls one Monday morning: ‘Heath, I’m taking my kids to school,’ then he just hangs up,” Shuler recalled. “At 11:30, he calls and says, ‘I’m leaving my office to eat lunch with my kids.’ Then, ‘Heath, it’s 3:30, and I’m walking into school.’ ”
Shuler got the message and signed up for the campaign.
Democrat Paul Hackett got the Schumer treatment last winter as he took a break from his Senate campaign in Ohio. His cellphone rang. It was Schumer, calling to talk about a fellow Democrat who had also decided to run for the Senate.
Schumer did not say it point-blank, but Hackett got the message: National party leaders wanted him to drop out, clearing the field for the other candidate. Later, in case Hackett missed the point, Emanuel publicly called on him to run for the House instead.
An embittered Hackett threw in the towel.
With such tactics, Schumer and Emanuel have stepped on toes -- even in their own party. They got into a shouting match recently with Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean over how the party was spending its money. Many liberals were furious when Hackett felt pressured to quit the Senate race. In Illinois and Virginia, local officials have squawked when the two power brokers intervened in primary contests.
But Schumer and Emanuel believe this new, tougher tack is needed if Democrats are to have a shot at the goal that has eluded the party for more than a decade -- controlling the House and Senate. They are, in short, ready to break some eggs to make that omelet.
“Democrats haven’t made too many omelets lately,” Schumer said. “We are willing to stick our neck out.”
Emanuel appears to have the more achievable goal; most political analysts say that Democrats are more likely to win the House than the Senate.
He brings to the job, which House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) bestowed upon him in 2005, “a very big personality,” as his first-grade teacher wrote on his report card.
His schooling in politics came from big personalities as well: He worked for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and was a senior aide in Bill Clinton’s White House. Emanuel also learned discipline and precision from one of the most unorthodox parts of his resume: He is a trained ballet dancer.
Emanuel’s reputation for political ruthlessness earned him the nickname “Rahmbo,” an image reinforced by a legendary episode when he sent a dead fish to a pollster who displeased him.
But he also knows how to curry favor. During his first House term, he called or sent a card to every member of Congress on his or her birthday. He sends cheesecakes from a Chicago bakery to campaign donors.
Once Emanuel successfully recruits a candidate, he imposes a political regimen designed to keep campaigns on track. He offers committee funding only if candidates meet goals for fundraising and media coverage, which he details in a “memorandum of understanding.” Candidates who meet Emanuel’s standards are designated members of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program, to which Democratic donors are encouraged to contribute.
He also leans hard on endangered incumbents like Spratt to run hard-hitting campaigns. The advice is not always well-received by lawmakers who think they have a better handle on their districts than Emanuel does. But even though Spratt resisted Emanuel’s demand that he run an ad on the Arab port deal, he credits Emanuel for seeing the issue’s political potential.
“The repeated calls can get annoying, but at the end of the day, when the poll numbers go up and the money rolls in, people appreciate his energy and passion,” said Fant, Spratt’s spokesman.
Schumer, who speaks to Emanuel almost every day, more than matches him in intensity. Tabbed for the Senate campaign post last year by the chamber’s Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, Schumer brought to the job a long-established reputation for being a dogged fundraiser and a relentless publicity hound. Congressional colleagues routinely quip that the most dangerous place in Washington is between Schumer and a television camera.
Schumer’s overbearing ways were on display last week, when he joined Emanuel and an immigration policy analyst at a news conference. Schumer dominated the event, and when he cut off the analyst mid-sentence, Emanuel offered words of sympathy.
“Go ahead and try to get a word in edgewise,” Emanuel said to the analyst. “See how the rest of us feel.”
Schumer prides himself on staying close to New York. He visits the state’s 62 counties yearly. Once, on demand, he drew the shape of each county off the top of his head.
He counsels candidates -- and even seasoned incumbents -- on his method of getting local media coverage: Conduct a news conference on a Sunday, usually a slow news day when it is easier to get attention.
Like Emanuel, Schumer regularly calls candidates to see what they are doing.
He was surprised a few months ago when Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. of Tennessee, who is giving up his House seat for a Senate bid, answered his call from Baltimore. Ford explained he was filming an ad at the city’s port, criticizing Bush over the Arab port deal. It was just the kind of in-your-face response Schumer loves.
“You are one great candidate,” Schumer told him.
Also like Emanuel, the New Yorker has set rules aimed at ensuring his advice is followed -- one of the conditions candidates must meet to receive funding from his committee, for instance, is that Schumer agrees with their decisions on filling key campaign staff positions
In important races, Schumer has departed from the tradition among his party’s leaders of not choosing sides in the primaries.
In Virginia, he endorsed James H. Webb, a former Republican, over Harris N. Miller, a liberal businessman favored by many state activists. Miller’s backers were furious. One canceled plans to hold a Democratic fundraiser at his home. But Webb won the state’s June primary, giving Schumer a candidate he believed was in a better position to upset Republican Sen. George Allen this fall.
Schumer also worked hard in Pennsylvania to discourage liberals from launching a primary challenge against State Treasurer Robert P. Casey Jr., widely considered the Democrat with the best chance of defeating GOP Sen. Rick Santorum. Casey’s opposition to abortion rights dismayed many party activists, but he easily won the primary, thanks partly to Schumer.
Schumer’s backing of Webb and Casey illustrated the pragmatism that he believes Democratic voters share -- a willingness to support candidates who have the best chance of winning, even if they break from the party’s positions on key issues.
“I’m where I hope the Democratic electorate will be: I want to win,” said Schumer. “Democrats are tired of losing.”
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Democrats’ tough guys
The work of these two tough-talking political operatives signals the return of firm-handed bosses to the sometimes unruly Democratic Party. They are deploying strong tactics reminiscent of another era.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer
Born: Nov. 23, 1950, in Brooklyn.
Education: Bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard University.
Family: Married, two children.
Career highlights: Elected to the New York State Assembly in 1974; elected to the U.S. House in 1980; elected to the Senate in 1998.
How he’s viewed in Washington: “Through energy, imagination, hard work, good humor and a certain amount of chutzpah, he became a skilled legislator and one noted -- and sometimes resented -- for his knack for publicity.”
Rep. Rahm Emanuel
Born: Nov. 29, 1959, in Chicago.
Education: Bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College; master’s from Northwestern University.
Family: Married, three children.
Career highlights: Senior advisor to former President Clinton, 1993-98; elected to the House in 2002.
How he’s viewed in Washington: As a White House aide, “he gained wide respect for his political savvy but drew criticism, even from allies, for an arrogant and abrasive style.” In the House, Emanuel “has shown he is a member to watch.”
Source: Almanac of American Politics