Calm, Cool, and Collecting
The Dems' new Congressional Campaign Committee chief has big shoes to fill
Five years ago, Chris Van Hollen got used to facing long odds. In the first congressional primary of his life, he was outspent and facing off against both a former top staffer to President Clinton, and Mark Shriver, the nephew of former President Kennedy. "It was pretty clear," Van Hollen says, "that I was the underdog." But he won that race by 5,000 votes in a Maryland district just outside Washington. And eight weeks later, he vanquished a popular 16-year veteran in the general election, becoming one of only two Democrats in 2002 to steal a Republican-held seat.
Holding on to his own seat has been pretty easy ever since. But now, as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in effect the House Democrats' campaigner in chief, he's got much more to worry about. He's in charge of retaining every Democratic seat and stealing from the GOP as many as possible on Election Day 2008. Those are always big shoes to fill, but they're just a bit bigger now after his predecessor, the bomb-throwing Rep. Rahm Emanuel, presided over a whopping Democratic gain of 30 additional seats last November, which put the Dems back in power after 12 years out.
Emanuel, son of an Israeli immigrant, is a hard-hitting Chicago pol. Van Hollen has a different style that reflects a different sort of upbringing. He was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and spent most of his youth overseas in Turkey, Sri Lanka, and India. His father was in the Foreign Service and later served as U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka; his mother, a Soviet specialist, worked at the CIA and later as an intelligence expert on South Asian affairs at the State Department.
Wonkdom. Van Hollen, a boyish 48 with red curly hair, three children, ages 16, 15, and 11, and a soothing academic tone, was on a similar path to wonkdom. At Swarthmore College, he was a student activist, working on the Nuclear Weapons Education Project and in a group lobbying the school to divest from South Africa; at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he specialized in national security; and, as a young staffer on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he took on arms control issues and coauthored a report on Iraq's use of chemical weapons.
But a train ride to Baltimore in 1986 led to a change in direction. He was headed to a retirement party for his boss, Republican Sen. Charles Mathias of Maryland, and found himself standing next to Republican Sen. Richard Lugar. "He said if you're interested in getting involved directly in politics, you have to get involved with local issues," Van Hollen recalls. Soon after that chance encounter, Van Hollen left Capitol Hill to work as a Washington representative for the Maryland governor's office, while taking night law classes at Georgetown. In 1990, he was elected to the Maryland House of Delegates and turned his attention to legislation on the environment and school funding. After 12 years as a citizen legislator in Annapolis-during which time he mostly worked for a Washington law firm-Van Hollen took the plunge into his first congressional race.