Emanuel tells freshmen to avoid Stephen Colbert

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the Democratic Caucus chairman, has told new Democratic members of Congress to steer clear of Stephen Colbert, or at least his satirical Comedy Central program, “The Colbert Report.”

“He said don’t do it … it’s a risk and it’s probably safer not to do it,” said Rep. Steve Cohen. But the freshman lawmaker from Tennessee taped a segment that last week was featured in the 32nd installment of the “Better Know a District” series. Colbert asked Cohen whether he was a black woman. He isn’t.

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Eyes (but thankfully, not heads) roll in Emanuel’s office when other freshmen stumble, such as the time Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) got into a debate about the merits of throwing kittens into a wood-chipper, or when Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio) explained that he is not his predecessor, convicted felon Bob Ney (R).

The freshmen respect Emanuel, but they don’t always follow his orders. On the other hand, avoiding the kind of publicity that only “The Colbert Report” can confer on a lawmaker may be the only advice from Emanuel that freshman Democrats are ignoring.

Last year, as the House Democrats’ chief election strategist, Emanuel engineered the party’s takeover of the House by capitalizing on a nationalized midterm election. Now, as the House Democratic spokesman, Emanuel is working to keep freshman Democrats in office. His thoughts on how to manage casework, campaign for reelection, and win favorable press coverage are rooted in former Speaker Tip O’Neill’s (D-Mass.) maxim that “all politics is local.”

“Pay attention to your district, don’t go Washington, go home every weekend,” is a message Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said Emanuel has drilled in. “He’s encouraging people to stay local and focus on change, change, change. He and [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi (D-Calif.) both say to renew your commitment to change every day … be local, be practical and maintain that connection to the district.”

Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) said of Emanuel, “He has been helpful and a pain-in-the-you-know-what, to my great benefit … he’s an advocate for making sure folks in the district know what you’re doing … Of course, he keeps a close watch on doing what we need to do to get reelected.”

Emanuel also understands that what works in a traditional Democratic district won’t necessarily work in a more conservative district, Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.) said.

If lawmakers are doing their jobs and staying out of trouble, chances are Emanuel won’t say anything. If they stumble, he speaks up. Hodes considers Emanuel a mentor who understands the value of “tough love.”

One freshman who has been on the receiving end of Emanuel’s “tough love” is Rep. Steve Kagen (Wis.), who boasted to a group of anti-war activists that he had dressed down President Bush’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, during a White House reception. The administration denied the story.

But Emanuel threw a fit. Kagen’s staff was hauled into the Democratic Caucus’s office for lessons on how to handle the media, Democratic sources said.

Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.) said, “It took [Emanuel] three weeks to come down off of the ceiling” after she refused to accept the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) assistance in her bid to win reelection in 2008.
Boyda said Emanuel would “worry until November 4, 2008, but he says it in a very caring, grandmotherly way.”

Emanuel is not the only House leader advising first-term Democrats. Pelosi hosts a weekly breakfast for freshmen and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) guides them through the legislative process. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the DCCC, tells new lawmakers that the first 100 days is the time to cement their relationship with voters by ably handling constituent service requests and pushing a positive legislative agenda.

Victory won’t be easy in 2008. Democrats may have opportunities to defeat GOP incumbents or pick up open seats, but they first must defend 33 new incumbents of their own. In 1994, House GOPers gained 52 seats and had to protect 73 new freshmen. In 1996, Democrats defeated 12 GOP freshmen and picked up nine seats.

Some first-term Democrats can breathe a bit easier because former GOP lawmakers and conceivably strong GOP candidates have demurred, including former Reps. Richard Pombo (Calif.) and Rob Simmons (Conn.). Reps. Ron Klein (D-Fla.) and Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.) also have had opponents decline to run.

Despite Emanuel’s energetic style of browbeating and worrying, freshman lawmakers esteem him.

“He’s the Al Davis of Congress,” said Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), referring to the legendary owner of the Oakland Raiders who coined the phrase, “Just win, baby.”