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Honda Shifts DNC’s Outreach Into Higher Gear

Five months on the job as a vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Rep. Mike Honda (Calif.) is carving out his niche by expanding the party’s minority voter base in new and emerging communities throughout the country.

As the only House Member and Asian-Pacific American in the committee leadership (New York Rep. Gregory Meeks ended his vice chair bid before the balloting), Honda said he has a unique role to serve for the party: He can not only bring in more minority voters but also serve as a bridge between Congress and the national Democratic organization.

The DNC has in recent years had a somewhat tense relationship with House Democratic leaders, who have felt the committee has neglected their candidates and fundraising needs. Honda said despite past criticisms, the committee will work with all aspects of the party and place emphasis on House Democrats.

“We should all be active parts of one team,” he said.

The three-term Member said the DNC, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee all have the same goal: victory for the party. As part of that, he’s helping first-year DNC Chairman Howard Dean find success in his strategy of targeting races in all 50 states and building the party base throughout the country, specifically by working with minorities — including Asian, Hispanic and black Americans — to recruit candidates, raise money and expand the party voter bloc.

“It’s very important for the DNC organization effort to be focused on the grass roots and build the base from the ground up,” said Honda, who also serves as chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

Laura Gross, spokeswoman for the DNC, said Honda “brings a unique blend of past experience” to the vice chairmanship, including his advocacy for the Asian Pacific Islander community and role as the only DNC leader who is a House Member. She added that while all of the vice chairmen are “very versatile,” they, like Honda, each play to their strengths of working with different constituencies.

“Because he is a Member of Congress, he can bring together community leaders, elected officials and members of the DNC together,” Gross said. “It’s very helpful to us.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) echoed those thoughts: “Mike Honda’s impressive experience has enabled him to build bridges among the many constituencies that are critical to the future success of the Democratic Party. Mike knows what it takes to help Democrats win a majority in the House and is taking on that challenge with his typical enthusiasm and resolve.”

Honda, one of five vice chairmen serving four-year terms, spends much of his time on the road for the DNC, with a good share so far in the West, Rocky Mountain states, Alaska and Hawaii. He’s also spent time in Georgia and Texas, where he’s helping lead efforts to reach out to Hispanic voters, a traditionally Democratic constituency that has been courted heavily by the Republican camp.

Beyond that, Honda is working to help elect Democrats at the local and state legislative level because those will be the national candidates of the future. They also buy into larger party goals and ensure greater unity among Democrats, he said.

“When you do that, you develop a cadre of expertise and office holders to serve as the base for 2008,” he said.

The California Democrat acknowledges the DNC has its work cut out for it, given Republicans solidly control all elements of the federal government and expanded their hold in 2004. Honda said he was “disappointed but not dismayed” at last cycle’s election outcome but believes the party is on the right track.

“There are always lessons to be learned,” Honda said. “Some call it failure, I call it a setback. I would be dismayed if there was no one who wanted to become a leader” in the party.

Those losses in 2004 — from the White House to the House and Senate — just proved to Democrats that they need to come up with new ideas and find new ways of reaching out to the electorate. The party understands it cannot win if it doesn’t stay disciplined and clear on its message and hold fast to its long-standing values on issues such as health care, education and Social Security.

“So there can be no confusion,” he said, referring to Democratic voters. “There will be more cohesion in understanding what Democrats are saying.”

As part of that, Honda is reaching out to minority media outlets to talk about broader party goals and values. He’s also leading the DNC’s “New Citizenship Project,” designed to turn new citizens into Democratic voters and to recruit minority candidates to run for office.

“Minority communities as a whole know the Democratic Party is the party for them,” he said. “We are just trying to get them together as part of the Democratic Party.”

Honda added that he wants is to ensure minorities understand that the Democratic Party isn’t taking them for granted: “The goal is not to be a distant parent, but an engaged parent.

“Dean has bridged that gap and used the vice chairmen and the DNC delegates to try to re-engage Members of our family,” Honda said.

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