Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has ruffled plenty of feathers lately, reclaimed some goodwill with her caucus Monday, bypassing more established members to name Ben Ray Luján the next chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
It won’t erase all of the negativity percolating among her flock — demoralized after Election Day and antsy over the stasis at the leadership table — but the decision to elevate the New Mexico Democrat is being called “smart” and “savvy,” even by those who count themselves among Pelosi’s critics.
Rep. Maxine Waters of California, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the top Democrat on Financial Services, said Pelosi’s pick was “refreshing” and “lovely.” “He was not talked about as one of the usual suspects,” Waters told CQ Roll Call. “It shows a recognition that someone who shows promise should be given opportunities,” even if that person isn’t the loudest or the most demonstrative.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the selection, predicting Luján would “ingratiate himself” in a way that other DCCC chairmen had not. (She grimaced when recalling the tenure of now-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whom she called “power driven.”)
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, the outgoing chairwoman of the CBC who has never been shy in expressing consternation about Rep. Steve Israel’s DCCC leadership, said all members will be able to work with Luján.
A former House Democratic aide who worked closely with Luján’s office said he truly represents the future of House Democratic leaders: “There’s a certain group of mid-level management members who always get referred to as ‘the next generation,’ but he is the first to come after them.”
In the 114th Congress, he will be the only completely new face in the senior leadership ranks, and the only one who was elected after the Democratic wave of 2006.
Elected in 2008, Luján is relatively new to Congress, but not so new that he’ll be criticized for leapfrogging members who have done their time and paid their dues. He’s not a media darling or a Sunday show regular, but that means he’s avoided the kind of scrutiny that’s dogged the three members who were at one point considered front-runners for the job: Reps. Donna Edwards of Maryland, Jim Himes of Connecticut and Jared Polis of Colorado.
Luján isn’t a household name outside of Washington, D.C., but that’s part of what’s made him so well-regarded among his colleagues.
Members, staffers and political observers describe him as low-key and unassuming, someone who puts his head down and does his job, and who doesn’t care whether the task at hand is exciting or glamorous. One Democratic aide said he never misses meetings or appointments, and it’s that perfect attendance record and positive attitude that gets noticed in a town that likes to reward happy warriors.
In an interview with CQ Roll Call Tuesday, Luján attributed his legislative style to the examples set by his parents, especially his father, the late Ben Luján, who served as speaker of the New Mexico House.
“My father … always respected members, he always respected people,” Lujan said. “Mom and Dad always raised me that way: You respect your elders, you respect your neighbors and you treat your family with respect and dignity. And that’s how I’ve translated my work in the Congress.”
He chalked up his work ethic to his upbringing on a farm.
“No job was too small,” Luján said. “You did it all. When I was very young in age, milking goats. Still to this day … cleaning the pens. You can imagine all that that entails. Cutting grass, cutting wood, stacking wood, doing what I need to do, and so I bring that same work ethic to the Congress of what we need to do: No job is too small, no job is too large, you need to roll up your sleeves and be willing to do everything that you’re asking others to do, and do it to the best of your ability and hope you succeed.”
But being likable and hard-working isn’t enough to successfully run an operation like the DCCC, and not everyone’s sure whether Luján has what it takes to recruit the right candidates, raise the most money and build the infrastructure to win back seats in 2016.
Sources familiar with the third-term congressman say he’s more than capable, especially when it comes to bringing people together and building consensus around a compelling message — something many House Democrats think the party lacked this cycle. He’s progressive, but can talk about the issues in a way that doesn’t alienate moderates; and at 42, he’s seen as someone who can bridge the gap between older and younger members.
As a Latino, he’ll represent a departure from the past eight years of white men leading the House Democrats’ top fundraising machine.
In terms of experience, he has proved he can raise money. As the recent chairman of BOLD PAC, which raises money on behalf of CHC members and candidates, Luján raised nearly $1.7 million over two cycles, a PAC record.
And he’s no stranger to the DCCC: In the 2014 cycle, he was co-chairman of both the Latino and Tribal councils, and he served on the Campaign Services and Recruitment committees.
Pelosi’s decision to tap Luján was something of a surprise to political observers, who expected the California Democrat to pick one of the more obvious contenders actively lobbying for the job. It was also something of a surprise to Luján, who had only been discussing the position with Pelosi for about a week prior to the announcement. He said he learned he’d gotten the job about two hours before the scheduled news conference where Pelosi revealed her selection.
“I responded to the leader that although I was not pursuing this, I’m willing to do the work and take whatever role and responsibility it is that I need to, to help my colleagues and make sure we’re reaching out to the American people,” Luján said of his initial conversation with Pelosi.
Less than 24 hours after getting the assignment, Luján is already being called “the chairman” by staff, and he spent Tuesday being trailed across Capitol Hill by a member of the DCCC press team.
Though many House Democrats said they want a more inclusive and collaborative DCCC for the 2016 cycle, Luján didn’t seem eager to reinvent the wheel. He praised Israel as someone who “set the expectations very high” and suggested he’d like to retain Kelly Ward, the current executive director.
As for his expectations in terms of electoral possibilities, Luján is going on the record early with a prediction that House Democrats stand to win.
“Look, I think we’re going to have our work before us, but I’m optimistic,” he said. “I see gains. I see an electorate we can reach out to. The same way I was born and raised rolling up my sleeves and getting to work, that’s what the American people want to hear and see.”
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