Leadership Shuffle May Leave Out Larson
Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson faces an uncertain future following this year’s difficult midterms, with senior party aides and lobbyists suggesting he is the most likely member of leadership to get the ax.
The Connecticut lawmaker, who has served as the No. 4 Democrat since 2009, has open support from many of his colleagues, who praise his warm personality and his bottom-up approach to leadership. But privately, he also has his critics, and they say he doesn’t have much influence on policy or a strong base of backers outside of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“John has been underestimated from Day One,” said Rep. Mike Capuano, a friend of Larson’s who calls him a “Member’s Member.” The Massachusetts Democrat, who helped lead Larson’s campaign for Caucus vice chairman in 2006, said Larson’s strength is that he listens to Members’ concerns and helps to advance them instead of trying to force through his own agenda.
“It’s not about what he wants. It’s about what they need,” Capuano said. “The Members know that he represents them, and that’s why he’s stronger than people think.”
But some Democrats aren’t so convinced.
“He’s sort of the court jester of leadership,” one senior Democratic aide said. “He’s good for a laugh. He doesn’t bring anything to the table.”
One Democratic lobbyist said, “He’s pleased as punch he’s just at the meetings.”
Pelosi severely eroded Larson’s power when he first took the conference job by handing the Caucus’ member services and incumbent protection portfolio and staff to Rep. Chris Van Hollen as part of a deal to keep the Marylander running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for a second term. Van Hollen also secured the job of Assistant to the Speaker.
Another senior Democratic aide said Larson is clearly the weakest member of the leadership but doesn’t think he will face a challenger next Congress unless the party loses the majority. That’s in part because he still has Pelosi’s support and because the position isn’t quite the plum it used to be.
“Why cause a fight like that unless there is a real reason to do it?” this aide said. “And there isn’t a real significant role for the Caucus chair right now. It doesn’t control money, and it’s not about strategic policy ideas.”
Larson, at least publicly, isn’t talking about what’s next. “My focus continues to be on using my role at the Caucus to shine a spotlight on the great and innovative work of our members, serving them and making sure their ideas and opinions are brought to the table,” he said in a statement.
Even if someone is eyeing a challenge to Larson, they may just decide to sit tight: Larson is limited to two terms as conference chairman under Caucus rules, creating an opening in 2012.
But a GOP takeover could prompt wholesale changes for the Democratic lineup, and Larson could easily get squeezed out in the shuffle, several senior aides said.
In addition to having one fewer leadership positions, rank-and-file Members could demand fresh faces at the top.
Van Hollen has been mentioned as a possible challenger to Larson if the party retains the majority, but the ambitious lawmaker may be content to expand his own policy portfolio as Assistant to the Speaker.
Also eyeing a trip up the leadership ladder, however, are DCCC vice chairmen Joe Crowley (N.Y.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.). If they choose not to make a play for the DCCC gavel, they may instead be interested in Larson’s job.
A Crowley-Larson matchup would be a replay of the 2006 battle in which Larson narrowly defeated Crowley for the Caucus vice chairmanship on the second ballot with help of Pelosi and the late Rep. John Murtha (Pa.).
Crowley alienated himself from Pelosi by aligning with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Pelosi bested the Marylander for Minority Whip in 2001.
“He was the beneficiary of bigger politics,” a former Democratic leadership aide said of Larson.
Larson’s allies, however, say he has made weekly meetings more inclusive and encouraged more Members to have a voice. They contend that Larson has helped them get hearings on their bills or get their ideas incorporated into legislation. Some even see a scenario where Larson competes for the whip job if Pelosi and Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) retire.
“Obviously we’ve always got our eyes on everyone everywhere,” one Larson backer said. “You can’t let down your guard, but he’s in a pretty good place. Members don’t have any reason to be unhappy with his performance.”
But some have questioned Larson’s political judgment.
Larson angered other leaders with the chaotic scheduling of the party retreat earlier this year. Pelosi and Hoyer scrapped Larson’s plan to hold the retreat in Charleston, S.C., over fears that it would make them look out of touch in a recession.
Larson’s backup plan — a visit to Fort McNair — was canceled after complaints about holding a political event at a military base. The retreat was eventually held in the Capitol Visitor Center.
Larson also raised eyebrows among moderates the week before the August recess when he said at a Caucus meeting that four vulnerable Democrats should be asked to withdraw an amendment to cut $1 billion in housing programs after Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) complained.
That’s the kind of move that might win him plaudits from party liberals but won’t help them keep the majority, one staffer said.
But Larson has one thing going for him: Members seem to like him. He’s always ready with a joke or an ear and is easily the leader they are most likely to have a cocktail with after a rough day.
Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raúl Grijalva endorsed Larson’s leadership, saying he felt comfortable with him. The Arizona Democrat credited Larson with helping bring together the various Caucus leaders and keeping them informed.
“People feel you’re going to get a fair shake and have a sense of trust, Grijalva said. “He doesn’t play favorites.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said: “He’s got a generous, open style, and he’s accessible, warm and smart. John’s got a lot of respect and affection. That’s a tough combination.”
And Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, added: “I can’t imagine anyone being able to put the votes together to beat him, and I don’t see anybody trying.”