VP Hunt Comes to Hill
Head of Kerry’s Search Team Meeting With Top Democrats
Sen. John Kerry’s vice presidential headhunter, James Johnson, has begun meeting privately with Democratic Congressional leaders and senior Members to get their advice on who should join the Massachusetts Democrat on the party’s presidential ticket.
Johnson, a longtime Democratic operative who ran Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign, recently sat down in separate sessions with Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.), Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). The former head of Fannie Mae also will meet later this week with House Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) and is expected to sit down soon with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Sen. Fritz Hollings (S.C.).
Senior-level aides and sources close to the Kerry campaign said the meetings are the beginning of a multi-tiered process in which Johnson and other campaign officials plan to reach out beyond the Senator’s inner circle for counsel on the No. 2 pick. They touted the effort as a savvy political move that demonstrated both Kerry’s willingness to work hand-in-hand with Democrats in Congress and their interest in drumming up early support for — and consensus on — his eventual vice presidential pick.
“It gets them involved,” a Kerry campaign source said. “It’s a good way to avoid problems later on and it’s a sign of the thoroughness, maturity and seriousness Kerry is bringing to the process.”
Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.), who has emerged as perhaps Kerry’s strongest advocate on the campaign trail, said his colleague embodies “the politics of inclusion and he wants to hear from experienced, thoughtful Democratic voices.”
“They ought to have an opportunity to be able to participate,” Kennedy said of discussions with the Kerry campaign.
Democratic Members who already have spoken to Johnson refused to disclose the details of their conversations, but several senior Congressional aides speculated the focuses of the sessions are broad and tailored to political demographics, electoral trends and how they play into tapping a vice presidential nominee, rather than a vetting of particular names.
Reid described his Tuesday meeting with Johnson as “very direct” and “candid.” He stressed that Kerry will cast a wide net — and look beyond Capitol Hill as well as on it — for advice before choosing a suitable running mate.
“I think it’s smart politics for them to reach out to people all across the country,” Reid said. “He is going to reach out to more than Congressional leaders, as he should. He should visit with the business community, which he will do.”
Several senior House leadership aides said the Democratic leaders to which Johnson is turning aren’t using the opportunities to lobby for any one particular candidate, but rather lend their expertise to the consideration of candidates. Several names have been floated as possible picks, with much of the focus on one-time presidential hopefuls Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), Sen. Bob Graham (Fla.) and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.
“What they are doing is tapping individual Members in the leadership who have been out there, throughout the country, seeing what’s going on politically,” said one high-level Congressional leadership aide. “They want to find out what the leaders are finding out, what they are thinking about what’s going on politically and where would a vice presidential candidate help, what assets would be helpful.”
Pelosi and Hoyer initially endorsed the presidential candidacy of Gephardt, their former Minority Leader, while Menendez backed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. All three leaders have since come on board with the Kerry campaign.
Leadership sources said neither Pelosi nor Hoyer would be making a specific pitch for Gephardt in their private sessions with Johnson, but would, if asked, speak to his strong leadership qualities and contributions to the ticket.
Beyond the widespread praise for the Kerry campaign’s handling of the search itself, many Democratic Members bestowed high praise on Johnson as the head of the search committee.
Kennedy described Johnson as a “good friend,” while Reid noted he thinks the former Fannie Mae chairman’s “integrity is beyond question.”
“I think they are approaching this in the right way and they got a tremendous person to do it,” Reid said.
Hollings, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, said he would offer Johnson this advice: “I just recommend that he not recommend himself like Cheney.”
Vice President Cheney headed then-Texas Gov. Bush’s vice presidential search team before Bush ultimately decided to choose Cheney himself for the ticket.
In a more serious tone, Hollings said his advice to Johnson would not necessarily center on Kerry choosing a Southern to be his vice president but rather a person whom Kerry has confidence in.
“I am going to talk up a winner, whoever the president thinks he ought to have,” Hollings said.