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Will Democrats Bypass Stark?

Amid perennial speculation that Ways and Means ranking member Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) may someday retire, key House Democratic lawmakers and aides say the erratic behavior of Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) could lead to a rare instance within the Caucus in which Members sidestep seniority and prevent the veteran Californian from moving up.

House Democrats have a long history of following seniority when determining chairmen and ranking member assignments, but many within the Caucus say they are ready to forgo the practice if Rangel ever retires.

Lawmakers and aides say they want to avoid the top Democrat on Ways and Means reflecting poorly on the party or being viewed similarly to the often acerbic GOP Chairman Bill Thomas (Calif.).

Thomas, in fact, won the GOP chairmanship by sidestepping seniority himself, a practice becoming more common in the Republican Conference. Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.), who in 2000 battled alcoholism, had been next in line to lead the powerful tax-writing committee, but Republicans decided to advance Thomas instead.

Democrats have only turned away from the seniority structure a handful of times. In 1994 House Democrats selected the less senior Rep. David Obey (Wis.) over then-Rep. Neal Smith (Iowa) to be associate chairman of Appropriations. Four years earlier, the Democratic Caucus passed over Rep. Joseph Gaydos (Pa.) for Rep. Charlie Rose (N.C.) to chair House Administration.

Bypassing Stark would give Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), next in line behind Stark and a close ally of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), an opportunity to lead Ways and Means for House Democrats. Matsui is now chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a position he took largely as a favor to Pelosi.

“If there was ever a chance for Members to move up based not on seniority alone, it is this case,” said one senior Democratic aide, adding that the chances of Stark moving up the Ways and Means ladder are 60-40 percent against.

Plus, Pelosi could avoid criticism from other Californians if she backed Matsui over Stark, given both lawmakers hail from that state, the aide noted.

Stark, 71, has a long history of making off-handed remarks, including most recently allegedly making an obscene statement to Thomas and calling Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) a “little wimp” and a “fruitcake.” Stark later issued a statement expressing regret for his remarks.

In 2001, Stark got in a heated confrontation that almost ended in blows with then Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.) after Stark referred to a “current Republican Conference chairman whose children were all born out of wedlock.” Stark also got in hot water in recent years after he accused Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) of being a “whore” for the insurance industry.

Stark, whose office did not return phone calls for this story, hasn’t indicated whether he would even want to be ranking member or chairman, and some Members speculate he may not want the top slot.

Several lawmakers said privately, however, that Matsui is almost surely going to make a run if Rangel ever retired.

“Matsui will be a contender,” said one Democratic Member, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Publicly, Stark’s Ways and Means colleagues remain mum about his future on the panel. But privately many hope Rangel remains in Congress for the long haul and say they don’t expect the longtime New York Member to leave Capitol Hill anytime soon.

A Democratic Member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that while Stark is “a brilliant guy,” he won’t likely receive support from enough Members to sit atop Ways and Means for the Democrats. House Democrats select their ranking members and chairmen through the Steering and Policy Committee, which makes a recommendation to the entire Caucus. The Member added that Rangel is unlikely to go anywhere to make the opportunity available, saying “his dream is to be chairman before he retires.”

“I think, like the present chairman, [Stark] doesn’t have the right temperament,” the lawmaker said.

One Democratic leadership aide said it’s possible party leaders would give Stark another chance by putting him on notice. In that instance, the staffer said, leaders would “lay down the law” and make clear to Stark that if he is to ever head the party on Ways and Means, he needs to change his ways. Stark may act differently if Democrats achieved the majority, other aides noted.

Another Democratic Member, asking not to be named, said Stark has proven he would be a poor representative for the party. The Member said Stark would do little to further the comity of the House.

At the same time, several Members said Stark rarely bucks the party on votes and has given to vulnerable Members and Democratic candidates in recent years. In 2002, Stark gave $21,000 to 21 candidates and $40,000 to the DCCC. In 2000, he gave $63,000 to 63 candidates and $65,000 to the DCCC.

Meanwhile, back home in the San Francisco Bay area, Stark’s tenure does not appear to be in jeopardy.

“There’s no talk about anyone running against him,” said Bob Mulholland, a consultant for the California Democratic Party.

Stark’s largely working class district, wedged between Oakland and the Silicon Valley, is a Democratic stronghold, so any political threat to Stark would come in a primary. Earlier this year, California sources suggested that state Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D), who lives in Stark’s district and is a longtime rival, was urging a protégé, former state Board of Equalization member Johan Klehs (D), to challenge Stark in the primary.

But Klehs told Roll Call that he respects Stark too much and was running for the state Assembly instead.

Another name floated for the seat was Delaine Eastin, the former California superintendent of public instruction. But Eastin recently became director of a new education foundation in Washington, D.C., the National Institute for School Leadership, and may not be interested in resuming her political career.

Al Pross, editor of the California Target Book, which handicaps elections across the state, said that while no one has come forward to challenge Stark yet, it could happen before long — especially with term limits now in effect for the state Legislature.

“The old rules of not running against somebody else — either in your own party or in the other party — are breaking down,” he said.

Pross predicted that it would cost a Democratic challenger between $500,000 and $1 million to run a viable campaign against Stark. As of June 30, Stark had $488,000 in his campaign account.

Darry Sragow, a Sacramento-based Democratic consultant, said voters in the 13th district may be aware of Stark’s pugnacious personality but may not have heard anything about his fights with his colleagues in Congress.

“Nobody here cares about Washington,” he said. “A lot of the stuff that goes on is just under the radar.”

Josh Kurtz contributed to this story.

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