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Can Nice Guy Chris Van Hollen Finish First?
In his five years in Congress, Chris Van Hollen has become one of the barons of Capitol Hill—sharp, steely, ambitious . . . but Tom DeLay or Rahm Emanuel he’s not. By Barbara Matusow
Photograph by Vincent Ricardel
Comments () | Published June 1, 2008

Sitting in his modest Rockville office, Chris Van Hollen exudes confidence. There’s room only for a desk, a couch, and a few chairs, but the third-term congressman from Montgomery County is sitting pretty. The week before, five House Republicans announced they were stepping down, bringing the number of retiring GOP incumbents to a whopping 29.

Vacant Republican seats are a boon to Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It makes his job of electing Democrats a lot easier. He won’t say how many seats his party expects to pick up in November, but the smart money puts the figure at 12 or more.

“For me, the retirements are a validation of the strategy we’ve pursued,” says Van Hollen. “We want to keep the 30 seats we picked up in 2006, but this year, instead of just playing defense to hold on to those seats, which is the normal tendency, we’ve decided to go on offense, keeping up the pressure on Republican incumbents—making them spend money to defend districts that would normally be safe for them.”

There are aspects to the job—round-the-clock dialing for dollars, putting the arm on fellow members for contributions, digging up dirt on your opponents—that can’t be very appetizing. In recent months, several prospective Republican House candidates, feeling the hot breath of the DCCC’s opposition-research team, have decided against running. In Arizona, the former president of the state senate withdrew from consideration after a memo circulated by the Democrats detailed how his son had admitted to sodomizing younger boys with a broomstick.

“You have to do a lot of tough things,” says Rahm Emanuel, Van Hollen’s pugnacious predecessor at the DCCC. “This is not a business for the fainthearted.”

It’s hard to picture Van Hollen getting up in the morning and putting on his brass knuckles. Friendly, open, low-key, and slightly rumpled—his pants usually look a size too big—Van Hollen seems unfailingly . . . nice. If the intense Emanuel brings to mind a panther, ready to spring, Van Hollen is more of a teddy bear. Yet colleagues will tell you the amiable manner masks a burning ambition and a sharp political mind.

“Sure, he’s a very warm person. But don’t confuse that with having the steel to do this job,” says Emanuel, now head of the House Democratic caucus. “He just has great judgment in the heat of the moment. He’s a steady hand. He doesn’t shoot from the hip first and ask questions later like I do.”

At 49, Van Hollen is already one of the barons of Capitol Hill and a powerhouse in Maryland politics. It’s a big leap for someone relatively unknown outside Maryland until he ran for Congress in 2002. Six years later, he wields power over the fate of dozens of Democrats, deciding whether the party will put its weight behind their races or not. His own Democratic base is secure; the eighth district, which includes two-thirds of Montgomery County and a small slice of Prince George’s, has twice returned him to Congress with a handy 75 percent of the vote. So it’s not surprising that people talk about how he got so far so fast and where he goes from here.

Van Hollen first made his mark in the Maryland Senate, where he served from 1994 to 2002, spearheading successful efforts to raise the tobacco tax, prevent oil drilling in the Chesapeake, mandate trigger locks for guns, and increase funding for education and healthcare. He also forged a strong if at times ambivalent relationship with the powerful president of the state Senate, Thomas “Mike” Miller, who is to the right of Van Hollen on most issues.

The two got off to a bumpy start when Van Hollen, who had served four years in the Maryland House of Delegates, ran against his own state senator, conservative Democrat Patricia Sher. This raised eyebrows because it was Sher who put Van Hollen on the ticket with her when he ran for delegate in 1990. At the time, Sher, who died in 2001, said it was like one of her own sons had “kicked me in the mouth with a boot.”

To Van Hollen, the move was justified. “She was out of step with the district on a lot of issues, including the environment, tobacco, and education, and she was very cozy with the special interests,” he says.

The political is often personal, however, and Sher was popular among her fellow senators, including Miller. “Patty was Miss Silver Spring—somebody you’d enjoy meeting at a crabhouse where she could smoke a cigarette, drink a beer, and eat her crabs,” says Miller. “People enjoyed her raspy voice and her great sense of humor. But she was also a very effective senator, and because of her popularity, she was able to get things done.”

Although Miller acknowledges that Sher’s stands often put her at odds with her Kensington–Chevy Chase district, he was dead set against Van Hollen at the start. As the campaign progressed, it became apparent that Van Hollen was not only going to win but win big. Miller figured he’d better get to know him and called him into his office. “Chris was very smart,” he says. “Instead of saying, ‘You supported the other guy. Now get lost,’ he reached out to me. He said, ‘You’re the president of the Senate, and I understand you have to support the incumbent.’ ”

At the same time, Van Hollen knew how to press his advantage. “I asked [Miller] to please stop helping my opponent,” he says. “And I got the subcommittee I wanted on taxation and the budget.”

If some of his new colleagues expected Van Hollen, a diplomat’s son educated at Swarthmore, Harvard, and Georgetown Law, to hold himself aloof, he surprised them with his readiness to have a beer or play a hand of poker. Often he could be found around the table at then-governor Parris Glendening’s games at the mansion. “He’s a very good poker player,” says Glendening. “He plays poker the way he plays politics—friendly, aggressive, and you never know exactly what his hand is.”

Van Hollen made himself an expert on the rules of the Maryland Senate, becoming the go-to guy for proponents of progressive legislation. “All of us liked working with him,” says Vinny DeMarco, a fixture on the Annapolis lobbying scene. “He combined a deep commitment to progressive causes like healthcare,

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 06/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles