Gephardt Puts Focus On House

Posted January 23, 2004 at 5:49pm

While he will return as a rank-and-file Democrat to the Caucus he led for eight years, Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) is nevertheless expected to play a major role in boosting the party’s House candidates this fall.

“He’s not looking to hide,” longtime Gephardt Chief of Staff Steve Elmendorf said. “He’s going to enjoy himself and contribute.”

Gephardt, who gave up his White House bid after a fourth-place showing in the Iowa caucuses, returns to the House the first week in February. The former Democratic leader will lack formal leadership status, but aides say he will play a key role in helping the minority elect candidates and raise money as well as providing issue advice and pushing the party’s national agenda.

“Knowing Dick and his passion for achieving a Democratic majority for a new Democratic agenda, he won’t just be coming back and finishing out his last year at pasture,” said Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.).

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) are expected to regularly turn to Gephardt for counsel, while Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.) has already called on the former leader to help the party raise money and elect Democratic candidates across the country.

Matsui said Gephardt has agreed to help the party’s fundraising arm, adding that beyond that the former leader can play any role in the Democratic Caucus he chooses.

“With Pelosi being a star and Gephardt being a star, we have two of them moving around the country with name ID and a kind of persona about themselves,” Matsui said. “It’s going to help us a lot.”

Gephardt has made clear he doesn’t want a House leadership position and that he will not attempt to claim any committee assignments in his final year, aides say.

To help with Gephardt’s transition back to the House, Pelosi, who succeeded Gephardt as leader, is putting together a Caucus-wide event next month to “welcome him and thank him for his service,” according to one Pelosi aide. While Pelosi has long admired Gephardt and will turn to him, she isn’t expected to ask Gephardt to serve in any formal role.

“It’s clear he’s not running for anything else, this is his last year and a time for her to talk to him and for a lot of Members to get his advice,” said another Democratic leadership aide. “But I don’t think all of a sudden he would become part of her inner circle.”

The Missouri lawmaker was mostly absent from the House over the past year while running full-time for president, missing most votes and rarely being seen in the halls of Congress. Expect Gephardt to reverse his voting margins in 2004, aides said.

Elmendorf insisted that the veteran Member has no anxiety about coming back to Congress, adding that for the first time in many years Gephardt can serve without the stresses of leadership or presidential campaigns.

“He feels an obligation to his constituents and this gives him a chance to spend some time unwinding,” Elmendorf said. “He obviously has been there for 27-plus years and has a lot of friends in the institution and a deep love for the institution. I think he’ll enjoy the final year of getting to hang out on the floor without the pressures he used to be under.”

Gephardt has told fellow Members he intends to pursue a job in the private sector once he leaves the House. He has all but ruled out a run for the Senate seat held by Republican Kit Bond. The filing deadline for the seat is March 30.

One well-placed Democratic strategist suggested that Gephardt will not be a “totally typical Member,” but he will have a “very active year in Washington as a Congressman.”

The strategist said Gephardt chose to fulfill his obligations to his constituents, serve the Caucus and help the party: “It’s as much a therapeutic thing for him to come finish off on the right note.”

“He won’t be there and be a normal Member of Congress in the sense of going to every single thing,” said the party insider. “He’ll be there voting and contributing to the Caucus and the cause.”

Aides and Members alike said Gephardt will be warmly received even though the former leader never caught fire with many of them when he launched his bid for president. Just 34 Members endorsed Gephardt’s candidacy, a number ultimately surpassed by rival and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

One senior House leadership aide put it this way: “While they may not have supported or endorsed him, they still recognize all the efforts on his end.”

Menendez, who is backing Dean for president, said the Caucus “will welcome him back with open arms and has a lot of respect for the way he comported himself throughout the race.

“He will be treated with the senior statesman status that he’s earned.”