Andrews Orchestrates Political Resurrection

Posted March 8, 2011 at 5:53pm

Once viewed by some Democrats as a traitor, Rep. Robert Andrews has spent much of the past two years repairing his Caucus relationships and securing a spot in Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle.

Andrews was largely shunned by the New Jersey delegation — and criticized by many Democrats — for mounting an unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Frank Lautenberg in the New Jersey Democratic primary in 2008. But these days the 11-term Congressman often finds himself at Pelosi’s side and has become one of her most vocal messengers.

Andrews said the 2008 race taught him some valuable lessons and allowed him to put aside his statewide ambitions in favor of a career in the House.

“Losing really hurts, but you learn a lot from it,” Andrews said in a brief interview this week. “You learn what your weaknesses are and you look how to compensate for them, and I hope that I’ve become a better public servant by learning from defeat.”

Pelosi tapped Andrews as one of two Democrats to serve on the Republicans’ transition team last year. And earlier this year, the California Democrat awarded him a slot on the Steering and Policy Committee, an influential panel comprising Pelosi allies, leadership and other top Democrats. In his role, Andrews consults the Caucus on messaging and procedural strategies, and he frequently takes to the floor to tout Democratic priorities.

Democratic aides said Andrews’ standing in the Caucus is far better than after his failed Senate bid. Despite the loss, Andrews was able to retain his House seat by replacing his wife, Camille, on the ballot. Camille Andrews decided to run for her husband’s seat but stepped aside after Andrews lost the Senate primary.

Andrews has spent nearly two decades in the House, yet sources said he doesn’t count many close friends outside Pelosi’s leadership circle. One New Jersey insider said Andrews still has “some hostile” relationships within his delegation.

“He’s certainly the least-liked member of the delegation by a lot, and some of the people really, really can’t stand him. And it’s not just Frank Lautenberg,” the New Jersey source said.

Another Democratic aide said Andrews’ political resurrection stems in part from Pelosi’s decision to add a handful of younger Members to higher-profile roles. After Democrats lost the House and Pelosi decided to stay on as Minority Leader last year, she decided to add a few new faces to the unelected leadership lineup.

“I think her bringing him and [Texas Rep. Henry] Cuellar and [Florida Rep. Debbie] Wasserman Schultz somewhat speaks to their abilities and also speaks to her political situation after this past election,” the aide said. “She needed some new Members in the room and some diversity of voices beyond her close-knit group, but it’s still not people who are outside her circle.”

Andrews got to work repairing his tattered image soon after the 2008 elections, when he began immersing himself in the health care reform debate. An attorney by trade, Andrews quickly became one of Pelosi’s top advisers on the issue and was dispatched to brief freshman and sophomore Members. He even became part of a rapid-response team Democrats launched in August 2009 just as the messaging wars heated up over the issue in town hall events across the country. Andrews said his role “helped me get to know a lot of Members better.” Several observers from the time agreed. 

“At both a Member and staff level he was viewed as very helpful in helping people understand the health care law as it was being put together,” one Democratic strategist explained. “I really think that that was what endeared him to Pelosi.”

Some Members were not thrilled with Andrews’ role during the health care fight: Multiple Democratic sources said that Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who at the time chaired the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, was particularly irked by his colleague’s high-profile assignment. Andrews and Pallone have clashed over the years; both have had ambitions beyond the House.

All seven New Jersey House Democrats actively backed Lautenberg over Andrews in the 2008 contest and publicly called on Andrews to withdraw. After Andrews decided to run to keep his House seat, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) told the New York Times that Andrews was “disingenuous” and that his decision to replace his wife on the ballot to keep his seat represented “a flaw in his character.”

Rep. Allyson Schwartz, another rising lieutenant in Pelosi’s circle, said she doesn’t believe ill will persists for Andrews in the broader Caucus.

“For many of us, it’s a New Jersey issue,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. “We obviously have Members who have looked to run for higher office, and some of them make it and some of them don’t.”

Schwartz also noted that Andrews has since become a more active member.

“It does certainly mean that when Members are running for higher office, it’s harder for them to be engaged substantively and politically,” she said. “So it’s clear that since he decided to stay in Congress, he has very clearly been engaged and willing to put his skills to work on behalf of the Caucus.”

Andrews won’t say what his next move might be, but he has long held a seat on the Education and Workforce Committee, and some have suggested he may have designs on a committee chairmanship or a leadership post.

Lautenberg, however, said that Andrews still has some work to do to repair his image.

“I think his race in 2008 was seriously damaging, and we’ll have to see what the future holds,” Lautenberg said.