Josh Kurtz: The Road Not Taken

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By: Josh Kurtz 

All the dignitaries came out for the Calvert County Democrats' annual Louis Goldstein dinner the other day, and Mike Miller, playing emcee, made note of them all.

After he had gotten through the obvious -- Ben Cardin and Steny Hoyer and John Delaney and Donna Edwards and Parris Glendening and Brian Frosh and Rushern Baker and Heather Mizeur and Tom Perez, among many, many others -- Miller called out former Del. John Bohanan (D).

Now, Bohanan is still a big man in Southern Maryland. He's a top aide to Hoyer and a player in the civic discourse of the tri-county region. But with his defeat last November at the hands of Republican Deb Rey, not only has Bohanan lost his official title, but he has also lost a more important, unofficial one: Next Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates.

Bohanan wasn't guaranteed to succeed Speaker Mike Busch (D) whenever Busch chose to retire, but he was on track to be one of maybe a handful of people who his colleagues would consider. Now, short of a comeback in 2018, that part of Bohanan's career is over.

It got me thinking about other Maryland politicians who have, unlike Bohanan, voluntarily taken themselves off of one career path to pursue another in recent years. U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) is the most obvious example right now.

By running for Senate in 2016, Van Hollen is turning down the opportunity to rise to the highest echelons in House leadership. Anyone who follows Capitol Hill knows that Van Hollen was one of maybe half a dozen House Democrats poised to try to move up in leadership whenever Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the No. 3, chose to move on.

Hoyer is 75, and has been in Congress since 1981. Pelosi is 74, and has been there since 1987. Clyburn is 74 and has served since 1993. They've all got to go sometime soon, right?

Well, maybe. Pelosi and Hoyer, rivals for many, many years, despite their ability to work together, seem to be involved in some kind of struggle to see who blinks -- and leaves -- first.

Van Hollen, who just a couple of years back privately disclosed that he might be just as happy sticking around the House as looking to move to the Senate, has obviously concluded that a vacancy at or near the top is not happening any time soon. He may also have come to the realization that there really isn't any hope of the Democrats retaking the House until at least 2022. So suddenly, a bruising up-or-out run for the Senate seems more appealing.

Van Hollen isn't even the first "Next Speaker of the House" to voluntarily leave Congress in the Pelosi era. That distinction belongs to Rahm Emanuel, the former Illinois congressman who seemed destined to some day succeed Pelosi as the top House Democrat. Emanuel left in 2009 to become President Obama's chief of staff and is now, of course, mayor of Chicago. (It is ironic that both Van Hollen and Emanuel, solid liberals by any criteria, are facing criticism from the ultra-left in their parties; Emanuel was forced into an unexpected runoff this spring as he seeks re-election because of it.)

Van Hollen may not even be the only "Next Speaker of the House" to seek a different opportunity this election cycle. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), House Democratic Caucus chairman, is weighing a run to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). That would scramble the succession game on the Hill even further.

And as he ponders whether to join Van Hollen and Edwards in the Maryland Senate race, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) must weigh whether he's willing to sacrifice his position as ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He'd surely become chairman if the Democrats ever took over the House -- and that's a very powerful position.

In Annapolis, Miller's spectacular longevity as Senate president has re-ordered the political careers of many Maryland politicians. The first "Next Senate President" since Miller took over in 1987 was probably Tommy Bromwell (D). Bromwell became so tired of waiting that he first tried to overthrow Miller in 2000, then accepted a job running the Injured Workers Insurance Fund later that year before changing his mind, then finally did leave for the IWIF gig in 2002.

After 2002, Sens. Brian Frosh (D) and Mac Middleton (D) were seen as the likeliest Miller successors. But Frosh, too, decided he wasn't going to wait any longer and was elected attorney general last year. Middleton, in his 13th year as Senate Finance chairman, is still hanging in there, but he'll be 73 years old in January 2019, the next time there could be a vacancy for Senate president -- assuming Miller chooses to leave then. It's very likely that Middleton's window to be the Next Senate President has shut.

In the current shakeout since U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulksi (D) announced her retirement plans, Jamie Raskin (D) is the only state senator who looks like he's close to getting into a congressional contest -- the race to succeed Van Hollen. Whether his interest in Congress has anything to do with Miller's record-breaking tenure is debatable.

But if Miller had tapped Raskin, and not Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D), as the new chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, how enticing would being a junior member of the minority in the House of Representatives look for Raskin? Raskin, of course, does not have to sacrifice his Senate seat to run for Congress in 2016.

The same is true of Del. Kumar Barve (D), who has already announced for the Van Hollen seat. Barve, the chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, has imagined himself a leading candidate for speaker whenever Busch, now in his 13th year in the job, takes his leave. But Barve is conceivably veering from that path with his bid for Congress, though he will presumably retain his gavel -- and could, in theory, still be a future contender for speaker, if he loses the congressional race next year.

All of which brings to mind the wisdom of Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. Follow him on Twitter -- @joshkurtznews

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.