After ‘Shotgun Marriage’ Will New Blood Help DSCC Turn Around?

Posted January 16, 2004 at 2:50pm

Once again, the folks at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have a mess to clean up.

The announcement early last week that Andy Grossman would leave his post as executive director and be replaced by David Rudd, a former top aide to outgoing Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), wasn’t big news in Omaha or Orlando. But it raised more than a few eyebrows on Capitol Hill. [IMGCAP(1)]

This isn’t the first time in recent memory that a DSCC executive director has run afoul of his chairman and opted for a graceful exit.

Like Grossman, whose strained — and distant — relationship with DSCC Chairman Sen. Jon Corzine (N.J.) led him to give up his position, another DSCC executive director, Joe Hansen, found it difficult working for his chairman, then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.). Torricelli made Hansen’s life so miserable that Hansen stepped down in May 1999, less than six months after Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) picked him to run the committee. Torricelli then put his own staffer, Jamie Fox, into the vacancy.

Staffing shifts are common on Capitol Hill, but the problems experienced first by Hansen and now by Grossman raise doubts about the system that produced the conflicts. Specifically, it raises questions about Daschle’s role in selecting both the chairman and the executive director of the DSCC.

Unlike Senate Republicans, who elect the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the chairman of the DSCC is appointed by the party leader, in this case Daschle. That procedure guarantees the leader a key role in the campaign committee, but it also means that the executive director is often closer to Daschle than to his day-to-day boss, the chairman.

After the 2002 elections, Daschle picked Corzine as chairman and Grossman as executive director for the 2003-2004 cycle. Corzine didn’t have input in the choice of Grossman and didn’t have a close relationship with him.

Corzine apparently preferred to bring the chief of staff from his personal office to run the committee, but Daschle wanted to make sure the DSCC had a politically savvy and experienced operative in charge, and Grossman, who was political director at the DSCC last cycle, certainly filled that bill.

Democrats familiar with the goings on at the DSCC present a picture of a dysfunctional family. Corzine and Grossman didn’t have a good working relationship, even though the executive director tried to get the Senator to work with him. While Daschle and a number of his top aides apparently tried to address the friction between the two men, they failed to improve things.

But while Corzine could ignore Grossman, the Senator couldn’t get rid of him. Grossman, after all, was Daschle’s guy, and Corzine accepted the post of DSCC chairman with the stipulation that he couldn’t select the committee’s executive director.

But things changed recently when former Republican Rep. John Thune entered the Senate race against Daschle on Jan. 5. Daschle found himself in his toughest political fight since he was first elected to the Senate in 1986, guaranteeing that the DSCC’s top fundraiser and Grossman’s strongest advocate would increasingly be spending more time in South Dakota and less on committee work.

The timing of Grossman’s announcement, coming only days after Thune’s entry into the South Dakota race, is hard to ignore.

Some observers argue that Grossman’s exit isn’t a big deal.

“A good effort was made by all. It just didn’t work out. All parties came to the conclusion that a change was needed,” said one insider who argues, “nobody was at fault.”

But I’m not so sure. As I see it, both Corzine and Daschle deserve a dose of criticism.

When Corzine took the DSCC job, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to pick his own executive director. If he couldn’t accept that, couldn’t get everyone on his staff to accept it or couldn’t figure out a way to work closely with Grossman, he should not have accepted the chairmanship. It’s as simple as that.

The Senator’s early efforts at the committee have been mixed, with some Democratic insiders complaining that the chairman is spending too much time on “process” and not enough time on the phone raising money. DSCC recruiting has been strong, but committee fundraising, until the last quarter, was pathetic. One strategist close to the DSCC promises it will show more than $2 million in the bank through the end of December, with the committee’s debt under $2 million. That’s an improvement, but it’s still far behind the NRSC’s numbers.

For his part, Daschle had a responsibility to make absolutely certain that Corzine and Grossman could and did work together. He flunked that test. Now, he must reconsider how he puts his DSCC team together, probably giving more weight to his chairman’s input.

While the political marriage between 2001-2002 DSCC Chairwoman Patty Murray (Wash.) and her executive director, Jim Jordan, worked well (probably because of Murray’s style), other shotgun marriages at the DSCC haven’t been so successful. The Corzine-Grossman breakup is just the most recent. Senate Democrats have to figure out a way to make it the last.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.