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Katrina Gives Thompson Chance to Prove Mettle on Key Panel

Up until just days ago, Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.) would not have been considered a prominent leader within the Democratic Caucus. But a disaster on his doorstep has thrust the Southern Democrat and ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee into the spotlight and given him a chance to show up even his most conservative critics.

Hurricane Katrina ripped through Thompson’s district two weeks ago, and in doing so put the Mississippi Democrat in the middle of the response both at home and in Congress. The disaster has given Thompson an opportunity to flex his muscle and win points with his colleagues as he tries to stave off a potential primary challenge.

“He is taking hold of things,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a member of the Homeland Security Committee. “Bennie Thompson is focused. And you know, the true mettle of a person is seen in a time of crisis.”

Thompson, 57, ascended to the top Democratic spot on the now permanent Homeland Security Committee in January, succeeding former Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), a centrist who retired from the House. The committee was put together in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Some Members and Congressional observers have wondered if Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was right to advance the outspoken and sometimes controversial Thompson to a slot so essential to the party’s hopes of regaining the House. Some suggested that Pelosi should look to a moderate to be the face of the party on key security issues if they hope to regain the public confidence on such matters.

In a June Roll Call column, for instance, the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein suggested that Pelosi should consider the party’s direction when tapping left-leaning lawmakers for such positions.

“I don’t want to knock Thompson, a very capable Member,” Ornstein wrote. “But if anything, the smart move for a Minority Leader now is to bulk up the party’s national security portfolio with Democrats who can reassure voters, especially those in heartland districts.”

Pelosi and Thompson’s allies were quick to not only defend their colleague’s credentials, but also his ability to work across the aisle and promote sound policies for the party.

“America needs real leadership in homeland security, and that is what Bennie brings to the table as the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee,” Pelosi said. “He offers extensive experience and understanding, and a solid commitment to protect and keep secure all of our American families and communities.”

Thompson spent last week hammering the Bush administration’s failures in responding to Katrina, calling for more assistance for the victims and insisting the country is not adequately prepared for disasters of any kind.

Thompson also — at the request of Democratic leadership — delivered the party’s national radio address this weekend. In it, he told listeners that the administration and Republican held Congress has not done enough since 9/11 to protect its citizenry and called on the country to do more to prepare and arm its first responders.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, said Thompson not only has the leadership’s blessing to aggressively advocate the party’s position, but also has shown up any detractors and “really grown into the office.” He added that Thompson has made clear that the issues are his focus, not himself, and that he doesn’t lead by his partisan politics.

“I don’t think people ever expected him to rise to the heights he has risen to,” Clyburn said. “But, I did.”

Thompson said he is feeling more confident in his job as time goes on, and recognizes he is in a unique position to take on a higher profile role for Democrats and the Congress in the wake of Katrina. He also acknowledged that as a Mississippian, he has an emotional investment in the catastrophe.

“I see it in a very different light now because I saw it in practice,” Thompson said.

Thompson also insisted that he has a history of putting politics aside for the betterment of the country. While liberal on some issues, Thompson said he takes a more moderate approach to others and has a record of working with Republicans, including drafting legislation with former Homeland Security Chairman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). (Cox left to the House to head the Securities and Exchange Commission.)

Thompson said he and Cox worked to pass bipartisan emergency preparedness legislation, noting that it was a very rare time when a Democrat won Republican legislative support on a security measure.

“I don’t think that just because I am African- American, I should be given the ‘ultra-liberal, tax and spend’ brush,” he said. “I’ve managed budgets … I have tended to not vote for every spending measure that comes before me.”

But one senior staffer to a moderate Member said the jury is still out with centrists on whether Thompson “can perform.” Thompson is in the right position — both internally in the Caucus and externally with the district he represents — but now must show he has the policy muscle and the political wherewithal to help lead the party on key issues, this staffer opined.

“The bigger issue for Bennie Thompson is not whether he is liberal or conservative,” this aide said. “The bigger issue is if he’s up to the task.”

Thompson may have his work cut out for him at home as well. Mississippi state Rep. Chuck Espy (D), nephew of former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy (Miss.), is eyeing a challenge to Thompson next year.

Thompson, who succeeded Mike Espy, is hoping the younger Espy will decide against a bid, and earlier this year turned to Pelosi to help. A staffer to the Minority Leader — who is supporting Thompson — drafted a memo earlier this year outlining ways to discourage Espy from running.

Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said there’s no doubt Thompson has what it takes to be a key party leader, adding he’s recently noticed a change in his colleague as he appears ever more focused on his position and on taking a lead role within the Caucus on security issues.

“I don’t know if matured is the proper term, but he certainly fits the bill well,” Clay said of his friend, adding that if “you look at the history of the House, this is not the first time someone who was a liberal has risen to the top on national security issues, and it won’t be the last.”

Clay was referring to then-Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), an aggressively liberal, anti-war Member who represented Oakland and carved out a leading position among Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee.

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) echoed those sentiments, saying Thompson is “now looked to by Members on homeland security matters.”

“He’s genuinely risen to the occasion,” said Hastings, the No. 2 Democrat on the Select Intelligence Committee who is in line to take the top slot. “I’d say he’s done as good a job as any moderate seeker of the title would have done.”

Thompson, for his part, said he may not be the “guy leading the parade,” but is a Member truly devoted to and is working consistently to ensure the safety of his country.

“I’m not a flashy kind of person,” Thompson said. “Every day I’m here, one of the benefits of being a Member of Congress, is that you learn. I have a broader grasp of the issues.

“I want to now put myself in a position to be one of the go-to people for the issues surrounding homeland security.”

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