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Larson’s Niche: Utility Player

Rep. John Larson (Conn.) may not be the stereotypical beauty queen, but as vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, he might just win the prize for congeniality.

“Part of the role of the vice chair is frankly … like being the runner-up to Miss America: If for some reason … ,” Larson quipped, trailing off the well-known line about the national beauty queen being unable to fulfill her duties. “So you find your own niche.”

During his tenure in the fifth-ranking elected leadership post — a term that began in the winter of 2006 when Larson won a surprise victory in a three-way race in which he had been considered the underdog, a late entry who made the unorthodox decision not to release the names of supporters — Larson appears to have indeed found that niche, carving out a role for himself as a sounding board for Members while also serving as a jack-of-all-trades for his fellow Democratic leaders.

“You really become the forwardly deployed antenna of the leadership, I guess is the best way to describe it,” Larson said in an interview last week in the Capitol’s Rayburn Room. “You get feedback from the Members and bring it back to the leadership.”

Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.), who organized Larson’s campaign for the post in 2006, noted, “Vice chair is a job without a direct, immediate portfolio and he does it very well.”

In his most recent turn, the Connecticut lawmaker — a lifelong resident of his Hartford-based district who was re-elected to his leadership post with no opposition in November — has been tasked by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to coordinate the onslaught of Iraq-related legislation en route to the House floor.

“I’ve always had the belief that you can get a lot more done if you’re less concerned as to whether or not your name is on something,” said Larson, a one-time member of the Armed Services Committee who himself has offered legislation to draw down the Iraq War. “I said at the outset of this that I think the Speaker wanted someone that would be agnostic and also bring everybody together, and I think she knew she could count on me to do that.”

“Every Speaker has got to be able to look to people who will serve as lieutenants. Not everyone’s a leader — you have to have people that are lieutenants and who actually can go out there and talk with the troops,” he added. “I enjoy it and … I think that that’s probably the role I do best for the Speaker.”

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), an Armed Services Committee member who has sponsored legislation that would require the Bush administration to issue a comprehensive plan to redeploy troops in Iraq, acknowledged that discussions on Iraq legislation easily can become “volatile and highly contentious” — his own measure stirred tensions among his liberal colleagues last week — and praised Larson’s efforts in recent days.

“He’s been tapped to exercise what he has in abundance, which is patience,” said Abercrombie, who later added: “He is one of the few people I know who can herd cats.”

Freshman Democratic Rep. Joe Courtney reflected similarly on his Connecticut colleague, with whom he once worked as a state legislator while Larson served in the state Senate, including an eight-year term as President Pro Tem.

“Anything I’ve ever asked, he’ll drop what he’s doing and help out,” Courtney said, adding: “He’s really a consensus builder, which is what you want in a diverse Caucus.”

In fact, Larson acknowledged that he spends much of his time on the House floor seeking out Members on any number of topics and often, of course, major issues pending in the chamber.

“I think one of the things that you have to learn, just like any other job, or anything that you do, everything has a rhythm to it. Everything has a flow to it,” Larson said.

“I try to get around and meet with the various caucus leaders and individuals that are participating in the Caucus,” Larson added of his day-to-day role. “But at the end of the day, for the most part, it becomes blurred, and you’re just really meeting with other Members. … Optimally that’s what you want: E Pluribus Unum, from the many one.”

But it’s not only major legislation that occupies those conversations. Larson said his rounds often lead him to talk about many more mundane concerns.

“It’s not a very glamorous thing to sit down and talk about how you’re utilizing your staff, your [mail] frank, whether or not you’re technologically up to speed, whether or not your Web site is up and running, and whether or not you’re getting out the right message in your district, but it’s very important, labor intensive work that needs to be done,” he said, noting that he draws from his tenure on the House Administration panel. “And from my perspective it also puts you in touch with Members on a regular basis.”

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) commended his colleague’s ability to work among the majority’s many factions, calling his abilities “important assets” to the leadership.

“John’s got a pretty good radar system on what Members are thinking, feeling, talking about … what’s out there,” Emanuel said Thursday. “He’s a great consensus builder.”

While House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) echoed that sentiment — “He has a great relationship with Caucus members and I think he is highly respected by all of them, and more than that they trust him,” he said — he also reflected on Larson’s background, like his own, as a former history teacher: “I think that John Larson is one of the most quiet, cerebral members in this Caucus. He is very politically astute.”

But to make those connections that he is praised for, the Connecticut lawmaker, 59, acknowledged it is not a matter of merely glad-handing with his colleagues.

“It’s not an easy group to get to know,” Larson admitted. “You could say that we’re populated by 232, or 435 class presidents. … They didn’t get here because they didn’t know what they were doing, they got here because they were capable, they demonstrated ability and the people of their district voted them here.

“When they select you for a position where you’re working with them, it’s a great honor. It also gives you an opportunity to get to know the other person,” he added.

“I love traveling to their districts,” Larson continued, ticking off a list of states and Members sprawled across the nation that he has traveled to in recent months for a mix of policy events and fundraisers. “You get a flavor for the country, and more importantly you get an idea from the districts from which these Members come and hopefully understand some of the trials and tribulations they go through in formulating opinions and taking positions on issues.”

Although Larson doesn’t reject an eventual return to state politics — “In politics you learn never to say never to anything, and never rule out any opportunity,” he said — all indications suggest he will look to stay on Capitol Hill rather than repeat his 1994 gubernatorial run, which failed.

“I thoroughly enjoy the House of Representatives. I’m blessed that I’m on two outstanding committees,” said Larson, who holds seats on the Ways and Means Committee as well as the Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee. “And I also happen to be in leadership, which places me at the table when important decisions are getting made.

“So for me especially — someone who loves the institution as a student of history — I love the job, I love the challenges that the job provides, I love the interaction,” he said.

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