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Larson Keeping His Options Open

Term-Limited Caucus Chairman Unsure of Next Step

By the end of 2012, Rep. John Larson is likely going to be out of a job — at least in leadership.

The Connecticut Democrat, who is in his second and final term as Caucus chairman, said he is unsure what his next step might be, but in an interview, he did not rule out a play for Speaker or another top post.

“John Kennedy used to say all mothers would love to see their children grow up to be president; few would like to have them go through the process to get there,” the one-time high school teacher said.

He added: “I think there’s a lot of that. From my perspective, do the job that you’re assigned to do; everything else will take care of itself.”

It’s unclear how Larson can move up the leadership ladder after next year. The seven-term lawmaker would either have to challenge one of the three leaders above him, none of whom is term-limited like he is, or wait for a retirement announcement. But few Capitol Hill observers expect Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to step down any time soon, and the rest of the leadership team appears to be holding steady while Democrats look to make gains in next year’s elections.

The Caucus chairman and vice chairman positions are term-limited. The current vice chairman, Rep. Xavier Becerra, is term-limited and likely to seek the Caucus chairmanship.

“Once you’re in leadership, particularly in a position like caucus chair, it’s tough to accept going back to being a rank-and-file Member,” a Democratic strategist said. “So Larson certainly has his eyes on moving up the ladder. But it’s a question of where does he go and who could he challenge?”

As he waits out his political fate, which could be made easier if Democrats win control of the House after next year, Larson has become a force behind the Democrats’ jobs message and pushes the issue at every turn. As one top Democratic aide quipped, Larson “is like a dog with a bone.”

He introduced President Barack Obama’s jobs plan in the House last month, and before that, he unveiled a trio of jobs-related bills for the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction to consider during its negotiations. Larson also led the Democratic Caucus in an outdoor rally on the Capitol steps last month to call for a vote on Obama’s jobs plan, announcing: “The urgency is now. Rise up, America.”

“Jobs has become the rallying point for the Caucus. It’s become the rallying point, I think, for the Democrats,” Larson said during the interview in his office.

He said the focus on jobs is in part from lessons learned leading up to last year’s midterm elections, during which the lawmaker said his party was punished electorally because “we took our eye off the prize.”

Now, Larson said, “I think we’ve not so much done a mea culpa to the public, but we say, ‘OK, we heard you.’”

Larson was elected Caucus chairman in 2008, moving up from the vice chairmanship and succeeding former Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). During his stint, Emanuel transformed the job into a messaging and policy power center and, like others before him, used the platform to cultivate strong relationships with his colleagues and prepare for a future leadership bid.

That day never came for Emanuel, who left the post to become Obama’s chief of staff and who is now mayor of Chicago. Before Emanuel, Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), now Assistant Minority Leader, had the chairmanship and maintained strong ties with Southern politicians and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Larson acknowledged that his position provides him a megaphone and close interaction with Members. Both his Democratic colleagues and Congressional aides note Larson’s affability, and a few encouraged him to run for Minority Leader last year in the event that Pelosi stepped down. Rep. Mike Doyle, who described himself as “definitely a big fan” of Larson’s, said he would encourage his colleague to continue climbing the leadership ladder.

“John has a future in the Caucus; there’s no doubt about that. He’s worked hard, he’s got a good message, he’s got great people skills,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. “I think he’s moving in the right direction, if everyone would just listen to him.”

Still, others note that despite Larson’s popularity, he lacks the fundraising prowess and gravitas to muscle into a top leadership spot or oust one of his sitting colleagues in a head-to-head matchup. There’s also a cadre of younger Members, including Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who are widely perceived to have designs on leadership offices, particularly if Democrats take the majority.

“He just doesn’t have the confidence of the Caucus to lead it,” the Democratic strategist suggested. “He can be Caucus chairman, and I think that’s a position that suits his strengths. But the problem is, he’s viewed in the Caucus as someone who provides some spirit, but no one views him as a big thinker, as a strategist.”

Larson’s strategy for the rest of the year, and going into next year, is to keep pushing for Obama’s jobs plan and hitting Republicans on the issue. And as the parlor game of guessing what’s to come after 2012 starts to heat up, Larson has promised to tamp it down.

“I think there’s always buzz. We have 435 Members. That means 435 people who were student council president and believe they can be Speaker of the House or president of the United States,” Larson said.

As for himself, the one-time East Hartford councilman quipped: “I’m running for mayor of Hartford.”

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