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Reps. Joe Crowley (N.Y.) and Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) have officially launched their respective campaigns to become the next vice chairman of the Caucus, a post not likely to be vacant until early next year.

The two lawmakers, both in their fourth terms in the House, made formal their bids for the post over the last two weeks in private phone calls, conversations and individual letters to Members. Neither was prepared to reveal names or numbers of their supporters, but each claimed broad-based backing from all corners of the Caucus.

“I’ve had a tremendous response so far from the rank and file — from a number of people who are willing to go public, and others who are with me who aren’t necessarily” willing to go public, Crowley said.

Schakowsky said of her support: “I have called well over half of the Democratic Caucus. There are lots of people who are ready to give me their commitment already and many more who are very open to my candidacy.”

Crowley and Schakowsky are the first to officially enter the race for the post, which could come open as early as next January or at the end of the 109th Congress. Other Members viewed as possible candidates are Reps. Diana DeGette (Colo.), Rosa DeLauro (Conn.), John Larson (Conn.) and Bill Pascrell (N.J.).

By most accounts, the vice chairman race will be a tight one and could prove divisive. Schakowsky is expected to glean her heaviest support from the more liberal base of the Caucus, while Crowley should see his strongest backing from the centrist to conservative factions of the party.

“These are two very popular Members that are going to probably split the Caucus down the middle,” said one Democratic leadership aide. “It’s going to be a very close race. Both of them are very personable and are great fundraisers. This is going to be one hell of a race.”

The vice chairman job, held currently by Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), is the fourth-most powerful Democratic leadership post. Under Caucus rules, Clyburn cannot seek another two-year term in 2006, and instead is expected to run for the Caucus chairman post.

But the position could come open before the end of the 109th Congress if current Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) leaves the House to accept appointment to the Senate. Menendez is widely viewed as a likely successor to Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), who is running for governor and will name his successor if he wins.

In addition to entering the House at the same time, Crowley and Schakowsky share other similarities. Both Members are Chief Deputy Whips, are among the most prolific House Democratic fundraisers and serve on exclusive committees. Schakowsky sits on Energy and Commerce, while Crowley is on Financial Services.

Schakowsky said she felt it was key to enter the race early — even almost two years out — to shore up support and put together a solid campaign.

“This is a race that often if you wait for the appropriate moment, the race is over,” she said. “The fact is this race has been joined, and one must begin to organize now, and line up support in anticipation.”

The Illinois Democrat said she’s running because she believes she “can make an additional contribution to the Caucus as one of the elected leaders.” Schakowsky pointed to her organizing skills, strategy development both in and outside Congress and abilities to work with different constituencies ranging from seniors to organized labor.

Crowley, meanwhile, said he decided to launch his campaign now because it was clear other candidates were ready to jump into the race, and he would have been remiss if he didn’t let his colleagues know he was interested.

He said he has already assembled his five-Member Whip team and on Feb. 18 wrote a letter to Members outlining why he believes he is most qualified to hold the vice chairman job.

“I have been looking at opportunities to share what I believe are some of my talents with the Caucus in a broader way,” Crowley said in an interview. “I’m using the vehicle of attaining elected leadership to do that.”

Crowley’s Whip team is led by veteran Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.) and followed by Reps. Artur Davis (Ala.), a New Democrat and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Steve Israel (N.Y.), a centrist Blue Dog Democrat, freshman Al Green (Texas) and José Serrano (N.Y.), a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Schakowsky said she is currently assembling her Whip team. Like Crowley, she has penned a letter to Members, to be delivered Tuesday, announcing her candidacy for the position and asking for support.

Crowley told Members in his letter that if elected, he would focus on “message and strategy” and help arm Members with the “tools they need to communicate our Democratic message.”

He also said that as a leader he would put his attention on redistricting following the 2010 Census to ensure Democrats win not only in liberal blue states, but also in conservative red states. Crowley also vowed to encourage and help find ways for his colleagues to become “personally invested” in Democratic electoral success, and do more than just write checks to the party and candidates.

The New York lawmaker touted his fundraising abilities, relationships with Members and service as a Chief Deputy Whip and promoted himself as a pro-business, pro-labor Democrat who can create coalitions and represents a racially diverse district.

“We have a lot of things going for us in terms of my own personal style,” Crowley said. “People recognize the work that we’ve done. It’s not just writing checks. People know I am a hard worker. And universally, I think, I’m viewed as a uniter who can bring a lot of people together.”

In her letter, Schakowsky calls herself a “team player and a loyal Democrat.” She also speaks to her fundraising strengths, contributions to vulnerable House Democrats and traveling on behalf of candidates.

“I work hard, I love my job, I love our party and I love our country,” Schakowsky told Members. “I believe that the Republicans have turned their backs on the aspirations of the majority of Americans, and I am dedicated to building our infrastructure, advancing a positive agenda, winning elections and becoming a majority party.”

She said that if elected vice chairwoman of the Caucus, she would work on finding ways to translate key issues in Congress into political wins for Democrats in districts across the country. She said she would work to combine interests in the Caucus, take advantage of Democrats’ different talents and ensure the party remains a big tent.

“I have a lot of skills as a strategist,” said Schakowsky, a close friend of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). “But I want to hear from my colleagues in districts all over the country to find ways we can maximize our opportunities in 2006.”

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