Cardoza links Pelosi to centrists of caucus

When the House Democratic leadership assembles each week in the Speaker’s Conference Room, Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) is the only lawmaker in the meeting with no official title and no leadership staff.

He has no real reason to be there.

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Except that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) wants him on hand.

If he did have a title, it would probably be “Blue Dog ambassador.”

Cardoza, a Blue Dog from Pelosi’s home state of California, has emerged as the emissary between the liberal Speaker and the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. And that’s helped Cardoza become what associates say he has wanted to be from his first day in Congress — a consummate inside player.

“He cautions leadership about likely reaction from Blue Dogs. He’s kind of an early warning sign,” said Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), a friend of Cardoza’s and fellow Blue Dog. “I wish they would listen to him more.”

Pelosi could certainly use better diplomatic relations with the Blue Dogs right now. A Blue Dog revolt is galvanizing opposition to the healthcare overhaul bill she rolled out triumphantly last week. And Blue Dogs are complaining that Democratic leaders ignored their warning.

That could put Cardoza in an awkward spot. But he says he’s lobbying the leaders for the Blue Dog position.

“I’m uncomfortable with the bill as currently written,” he said. “I’m working diligently to have Blue Dog principles inserted into the bill.”

In leadership meetings on healthcare, Cardoza has joined those who think that, combined with the energy bill, Pelosi is forcing too many difficult votes on vulnerable members.

“He’s been pretty clear that putting people at risk is problematic,” said a leadership aide. “He has definitely been warning about problems.”

Pelosi confidants say she draws on Cardoza for help in taking the pulse of the 52-member coalition. She needs to know if key Blue Dogs are really speaking for the bulk of the group or just themselves. And sometimes she needs to know how to get their support on close votes.

“It’s no secret that difficulty in getting to 218 is often laid at the door of the Blue Dogs,” said a senior Democratic aide, citing the minimum number of votes needed to pass a bill on the House floor. “He often comes from their meeting. He makes strong pleas for what they want.”

Democratic insiders point out that Cardoza is also a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and has close ties with rural members because he comes from a farming district and sits on the Agriculture Committee.

But what’s just as important, they say, is that Cardoza and Pelosi share the same home state, giving her a comfort level with a lawmaker who is different from her in many other ways.

“I think she saw I had relationships throughout the caucus,” Cardoza said in an interview. “You need someone willing to speak their mind.”

When he got to Congress, Cardoza was probably best known for having knocked out his former boss, then-Rep. Gary Condit (D-Calif.), who ran despite his entanglement in the Chandra Levy affair. Pelosi wasn’t a Cardoza ally then. While California’s two Democratic senators endorsed Cardoza in the primary, Pelosi backed Condit.

Cardoza was the son of a bowling alley owner, the kind of small businessman whom every politician in his hometown of Merced needed to pay a courtesy call when they ran for office. Cardoza started working the till at his father’s alley when he was 7. But he had grander aspirations. He became a congressional intern. Then he went to the University of Maryland and got involved in politics. He worked for Condit in the State Legislature and in Congress before being elected to the State Legislature himself.

Many trace Cardoza’s ambassador role to the high-stakes battle for majority leader in 2006, when Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a Pelosi ally and mentor, challenged Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for the No. 2 slot in leadership, which had been presumed to be Hoyer’s. Pelosi backed Murtha against Hoyer, a rival from past leadership battles.

In the tense caucus meeting where the vote was taken, Cardoza gave a nominating speech for Hoyer, which was counted as a blow against Murtha and Pelosi, since Cardoza is a fellow Californian. But he also nominated Pelosi. His message — that the Democrats should stick with the team that got them there. He managed to keep a foot in both camps.

“It sent a message that it was OK to be with Nancy and to be with Steny,” Cardoza said.

But Democratic sources say the Murtha fight demonstrated to Pelosi that she didn’t have the intelligence she needed among party centrists. She’d thought enough of them would rally to the side of Murtha, the oldest of old bulls, to put him over the top.

“It was obvious she wasn’t getting good information from the moderate wing,” a Democratic source said.

She wanted someone who could keep her tapped into the thinking of the centrists in her caucus. So she turned to Cardoza, a Blue Dog from her home state with a conservative rural district.

Pelosi put Cardoza on the Rules Committee, the panel Pelosi uses to control floor action. That made him the Blue Dogs’ emissary to the panel often referred to as “the Speaker’s committee.”

About a year later, Pelosi asked him to start attending leadership meetings. Originally, the reason was that he was the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline campaign. Cardoza has handed off that job, but kept attending the meetings.

Tony Coelho, a former House leader who held Cardoza’s seat before Condit, said such “listening posts” are essential for congressional leaders.

“People like to tell people what they think. They don’t want to tell leadership what they think,” Coelho said. “You don’t want to be seen as negative.”

Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), a prominent Blue Dog, says the arrangement has served both Pelosi and the Blue Dogs well.

“Coming from her home state, I think he understands her,” Boyd said. “He knows the Blue Dogs pretty well. He’s a voice who can say what the Blue Dogs are thinking.”

But aides and lawmakers say it can also put Cardoza in a bind. One aide said Pelosi has, on occasion, leaned on Cardoza to persuade Blue Dogs to give in on key conservative principles, like waiving “pay-as-you-go” rules to get a bill passed. And last year, he joined those urging her to drop her stalwart opposition to a vote on offshore drilling.

“Sometimes it puts him in a difficult position,” Costa said.

One standoff came during the public outcry over AIG bonuses earlier this year. Pelosi called a series of emergency meetings to demand legislation “clawing back” such big Wall Street bonuses. Cardoza complained that the legislation unfairly lumped small community banks in with the big Wall Street players blamed for the economic meltdown.

Cardoza successfully got language put in that exempted the smaller banks. The legislation passed the House, but went nowhere in the Senate.

“I speak very frankly in those meetings, and I speak very frankly to her, honestly,” Cardoza said. “There are times we agree and times we disagree. Then we go on to the next issue.”