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Leaders Ponder Rewards for Newcomer

House Democratic leaders are scrambling to find a plum committee slot to reward their newest Member, Rep.-elect Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), for wresting away a Republican seat and giving them much-needed momentum heading into the 2004 elections.

Chandler, a former state attorney general who was the Democratic nominee for governor in 2003, handily won a special election in Kentucky’s 6th district last week and narrowed the House Democratic minority to 12 seats. He will be sworn in this week, sit down individually with Democratic leaders and be the guest of honor at the party’s Caucus meeting on Wednesday. Chandler also will quickly join the conservative Democrat Blue Dog Coalition.

Leadership sources throughout the Caucus say beyond public accolades, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) is looking to give Chandler an important committee assignment to congratulate him for the victory and help secure his re-election in just eight months. While few plum committee slots are available, sources say Pelosi is working behind the scenes to give Chandler a position he wants, one that can help him secure a long tenure in the House.

“She is going to do as much as she can for him,” said one senior Democratic aide, suggesting Veterans’ Affairs or Homeland Security as possible committees. “Obviously, he agreed to run for this seat after coming off a very difficult gubernatorial bid. She is going to try to help him out in any way she can.”

Chandler, who lost his campaign for governor in 2003 to his now-predecessor, Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R), said he has yet to voice his wants to Pelosi or other leaders. But he said that when he meets with the leaders this week, he’ll tell them he’s interested in serving on Appropriations or one of the foreign affairs committees such as Armed Services or International Relations.

“I have not asked for anything in particular except for the opportunity to help them and do a good job for the people I represent,” Chandler said. “We will discuss when I get up there the particulars about the committees and that sort of thing.”

Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, couldn’t provide any details about potential assignments. But Matsui said he is confident Chandler will be “treated as a hero by all of us.”

Chandler’s victory marks the first time in 13 years that a Democrat has won a Republican-held seat in a special election.

“There will be opportunities there” for Chandler, Matsui said. “There are a couple of openings and perhaps some switches to ensure he gets something of his interest. I will leave it up to the leader and Chandler.”

Chandler’s win is viewed as a potential political turning point for Democrats, who face major hurdles making gains this cycle. Members, led by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), raised record amounts of money for Chandler and sent hundreds of staffers to Kentucky to help secure his Feb. 17 win.

Beyond Chandler, House Democrats are also banking on a victory in the June 1 South Dakota special election, and perhaps in Louisiana if Rep. Billy Tauzin (R) resigns before the end of his term. They hope those wins can help neutralize potential vulnerabilities in Texas resulting from a new Congressional district map.

“I suspect Ben Chandler will receive a very, very warm reception and a welcome from the Caucus,” said one well-placed Democratic staffer. “He epitomizes what Democrats have to do to win the House back.”

Matsui said House leaders will look to Chandler for advice on how other Democratic candidates in marginal districts can win this cycle. Chandler will also serve as an important source for the 19 vulnerable incumbents in the party’s “Frontline” program, designed to raise money for Democrats facing tough re-elections.

Chandler said he welcomes that chance.

“These are states that Democrats have had difficulty being successful in,” he said. “But if we get the right candidates and give the right message, a moderate to conservative message, we can do very well.”

Committee openings exist for House Democrats on the Homeland Security, Government Reform, Small Business and Science committees. Of those, Homeland Security packs the largest punch for a Member, but none is viewed as a major assignment, nor are they viewed as the best fundraising panels.

Opportunities also could be available on Agriculture and Veterans’ Affairs, where several Members who hold three committee assignments could be asked to take a leave.

One senior Democratic aide said the Steering and Policy Committee, which assigns positions, will meet as early as Wednesday to give Chandler his posts.

“We’ll look for what can help him out in his district,” said the staffer. “We leave a lot of that to him — Agriculture and Veterans’ come to mind — but it’s very safe to say we’ll do whatever it is that can help him be re-elected.”

It is highly unlikely Chandler could secure a slot on exclusive committees (Appropriations, Energy and Commerce, and Ways and Means). Those positions are few and far between and are rarely, if ever, given to freshmen.

Meantime, Chandler’s addition to the Blue Dog Coalition will bring the conservative Democratic group’s membership to 38. The Blue Dogs endorsed Chandler during the election, and Eric Wortman, spokesman for the group, said once Chandler is sworn in to Congress, “he is a Blue Dog.”

“We are looking forward to having him, of course,” Wortman said.

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