French, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Turkish, and Sinhala, held senior posts at the CIA and the State Department, where she served as chief of the intelligence bureau for South Asia. She died last year.
The family believed in plain living, in keeping with the senior Van Hollen’s Quaker background. Winter and summer vacations were Spartan affairs at their cabin in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where they did without heat, electricity, and telephone.
“We didn’t take fancy vacations. My parents put all their savings into our education,” says Cecilia Van Hollen, Chris’s younger sister, who teaches anthropology at Syracuse University. “We were brought up to believe that we should think about careers that would be intellectually stimulating and make the world a better place. That was almost the mantra coming from both my parents.”
Chris, the eldest of three, was born in 1959 in Karachi, Pakistan, where his father was posted. The family moved often, bouncing back and forth between their house in McLean and postings in Turkey, India, and Sri Lanka. For a curious child, life abroad was idyllic. Van Hollen remembers watching dancing bears shimmy down the streets of Ankara and seeing lambs sacrificed on street corners during Ramadan. In Sri Lanka, the family took trips into the jungles, where they saw leopards and elephants—they were once charged by a mother elephant—and snorkeled in waters teeming with exotic fish.
In each post, the family traveled from one end of the country to the other, partly to show the flag, partly to educate the children. In addition to the usual museums and temples, they would visit local factories to see how people worked and what their lives were like. It all left its mark.
“I developed an early interest in foreign affairs,” says Van Hollen. “In Sri Lanka, I went to a village and went into a hut, and there was a picture of John F. Kennedy on the wall—it was somebody whose life had been touched by the Peace Corps. That became one of my passions—how the US can interact with the rest of the world and be a leader.”
Chris came back to the States for his junior year of high school and went to the Middlesex School in Massachusetts, where his grandfather had taught. After the freedom and stimulation of living overseas, boarding school felt confining. “He didn’t really fit in at prep school,” says a friend from those days, James Lifshutz. “Neither of us did. He was very liberal, very rebellious, more worldly and well traveled than most of the other students. We both cared deeply about issues and had common interests in politics and world affairs that we didn’t share with the rest of the student body.”
At the same time, Van Hollen was a fun-loving kid who played football, careened around on a motorcycle, and didn’t mind stretching the rules. “We tended to regard curfews as suggestions,” says Lifshutz. “We would sneak into the girls’ dorms.”
“I was the kind who spent equal time on studies and social activities,” says Van Hollen. “Grades were not my main focus.”
At Swarthmore he buckled down, majoring first in history, then physics, then philosophy and became a campus leader in the fight against apartheid and the arms race with the Soviet Union. After earning a master’s in public policy from the Kennedy School, he landed a job with former Maryland senator Charles “Mac” Mathias as his legislative assistant for arms control. In the mid-’80s, when Mathias and Ted Kennedy teamed up to pass a resolution calling for America to adopt a comprehensive test-ban treaty, they tapped Van Hollen, still in his twenties, as their point man. All of this experience, plus 12 years of honing his political skills in the Maryland legislature, gave him a leg up when he returned to the Hill as a congressman in 2002.
“He came, you might say, as an advanced member,” says Hoyer.
Impressed by Van Hollen’s early work on behalf of the DCCC, Rahm Emanuel named him cochair of candidate recruitment in 2005. This should have been a plum for a second-term congressman, but it was no secret that his real goal was a seat in the US Senate. He had a problem, though: Maryland Democrats tend to return people to office election after election.
That was the calculus Van Hollen had to weigh when Senator Paul Sarbanes announced that he was stepping down at the end of his term in 2006 after 30 years in Congress. Benjamin Cardin, who’d been elected to the House in 1986, was in line ahead of Van Hollen.
Van Hollen spent the spring of 2005 traveling the state to gauge his support and raise money. He knew that he would be crossing some of his elders, including Mike Miller, who was close to Cardin. So was Steny Hoyer. “Of all the friends I have in this world, Ben is one of my two or three closest,” says Hoyer. “We go back 40-plus years. He was elected to the legislature in 1966, the same year I was, and his wife, Myrna, was very close to my late wife. So it was not a political decision. If Ben wants to run, I’m for him.”
When Van Hollen stood down in July 2005, he said he didn’t want to put his family through another bruising fight so soon after his 2002 House race. He also wanted to avoid a nasty primary.
“Chris can read the tea leaves,” says Miller. “It would have been a very divisive primary and so expensive that it would most likely have resulted in Michael Steele being elected to the US Senate. Remember that Cardin only beat Steele by six points.”
However disappointing it was to Van Hollen to pass up the Senate race, he has seen his star steadily rise in the House. Just weeks after the 2006 election, he was appointed to the House Ways and Means Committee and named chair of the DCCC.
Always a hard worker, Van Hollen has seen his workload increase exponentially. Gone are the days when he could take an afternoon off to take one of his children to soccer practice; he’d coached all of their teams when they played in the Montgomery County recreational league. The boys have now graduated to travel soccer, and Van Hollen tries to get to as many games as possible, but it’s not easy. “We make a real effort to protect weekends,” he says. “If I have a Monday-morning meeting in New York, I have told the staff not to schedule me to fly out on Sunday night, that I’ll just get up extra early on Monday morning. Keeping in touch with cell phones and BlackBerrys helps a lot too.”
“When you make a commitment like chairing the DCCC, everything else goes,” says Katherine. “We don’t do a lot of things or go to evening functions that aren’t absolutely necessary. Everything we do revolves around the kids.”
In one way, Van Hollen is lucky, stepping into the DCCC job at a time when the GOP is so unpopular. “The House Republican brand is so bad right now that if it were a dog food, they’d take it off the shelf,” says Northern Virginia congressman Tom Davis, who has joined the GOP stampede toward the door.
After a “wave” election like the one in 2006, which swept 30 new Democrats into office, the party in power almost always loses seats. But this year the Democrats are poised to pick up seats in the House, thanks to the DCCC’s six-to-one advantage in fundraising over its counterpart and a stronger-than-usual lineup of recruits.
“Saying Van Hollen is lucky takes absolutely nothing away from him,” says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, which handicaps congressional races. “Even if you’re lucky, you have to be good. The committee’s recruitment is good. The money is terrific, and their message is excellent. And when you look at the buzz they’ve created, even Republican operatives will tell you this is a very capable,