By Josephine Hearn - 02/02/06 12:00 AM EST
In what some were calling the biggest upset in House leadership elections in recent memory, Rep. John Larson (Conn.) staged a come-from-behind victory yesterday to become vice chairman of the House Democratic caucus.
He defeated rival Rep. Joe Crowley (N.Y.) 116-87 in the second round of balloting among House Democrats, having trailed him in the first ballot by 66 votes to 79. The third candidate, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.), was eliminated in the first ballot because she finished third, with 56 votes.
Larson ran a campaign vastly different from those of his two competitors. While Crowley and Schakowsky routinely released their supporters’ names and sought press attention, Larson flew under the radar, saying early on that he would not name his backers.
He worked member to member, with little involvement from staff. Even on the morning of the vote, Larson was low-key. While Schakowsky supporters sported buttons and Crowley’s backers had stickers touting “Values. Vision. Victory,” Larson and his allies went unadorned.
Going into the vote, only 19 of Larson’s supporters were publicly known, as compared with the long lists of members loyal to Crowley and Schakowsky. Yet nearly all of the members who had not committed to Crowley or Schakowsky ended up backing Larson.
Larson’s allies said his low-key approach had proved appealing.
“When you put people on the spot, they don’t like it,” said Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a co-chairman of Larson’s campaign. “If you stay back, do it among the members, don’t try to stiff-arm anyone, that can work.”
Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), another supporter, concurred, saying, “What this proves is: Don’t run a campaign by dribbling out names.”
Other observers said the election turned on long-standing divisions in the caucus between those who identify with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and those who align with Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.). Pelosi won an intense leadership battle against Hoyer in 2001.
“When you have hard-fought races like the one between Pelosi and Hoyer, there are inevitably residual feelings,” a House Democratic leadership aide said, noting that many of Crowley’s supporters had backed Hoyer five years earlier.
Crowley distanced himself from Hoyer, asserting that he was his “own man,” but still may have faced difficulties wooing members who typically align with Pelosi. Both Larson and Schakowsky were Pelosi supporters in 2001.
Many expected a Crowley-Schakowsky runoff in the second ballot, prompting momentary surprise when Schakowsky was eliminated in the first round, according to sources inside the caucus meeting.
Schakowsky, like Crowley, may have suffered from an association somewhat out of her control. Her husband, Robert Creamer, pleaded guilty to bank-fraud charges last year, making some members squeamish about elevating her to a more visible position within the caucus, several Democratic aides said.
In the end, members may have chosen the affable Larson as the member who carried the least baggage into the role of vice chairman.
They may also have been swayed by an e-mail Schakowsky sent to her supporters while the votes from the first ballot were still being counted. In it, she urged them to show up for the second ballot and, should she not make it, to support Larson.
Forty-eight of Schakowsky’s 56 backers followed her lead.
Despite the clear divisions still evident in the caucus, Larson called the results a victory for unity among Democrats.
“Never has this Democratic Party been as united as it has today,” he said, noting that all three candidates had waged friendly campaigns.
“Unity is the order of the day,” Pelosi said.
Hoyer said Larson will bring “a strong, positive vision to the position.”
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Larson’s other campaign co-chair, said lawmakers were drawn to Larson by the personal connections he has made with members.
“What he is about is working with members, finding out what kind of help they need, what kind of services they need. He’s a member’s member,” DeLauro said, noting that Larson served on the House Administration Committee, which often deals with members’ personal needs.
“He’s extremely popular,” said Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). “That was always the case. It will be easy for him to reach out to people.”
Inside the caucus room, the two rounds of balloting went smoothly, according to all accounts. Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Don Payne (D-N.J.) showed up late but were allowed to vote.
Three ballots were thrown out in the first round after two members failed to mark any candidate and one selected two.
When Caucus Chairman Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) announced the ballot with two names, Rep. Gary Ackerman quipped, “I kept my promises!”
Rep. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio), a Schakowsky supporter, did not show up for the election. “He had a campaign meeting,” his spokesman said.
The election was a boost to Murtha, who continued his streak of having always voted for the victor in leadership races.