Josh Kurtz: Van Hollen’s Lament

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You’re Chris Van Hollen.

You knocked off an entrenched Republican member of Congress in 2002 who other ambitious, high profile Democrats had been targeting for years – after first outmaneuvering a Kennedy in the Democratic primary.

You stood down and chose not to run for Senate in 2006 after Paul Sarbanes retired, even though you knew you had a pretty good chance of winning – and averted a Democratic bloodbath in the process.

You helped House Democrats pick up more than 50 seats in consecutive election cycles, enabling Nancy Pelosi to become Speaker and Steny Hoyer, your fellow Marylander who favored the aforementioned Kennedy in that 2002 primary, to become Majority Leader.

After years of traveling the country, raising money and combing the bushes for stellar candidates, you reluctantly agreed to re-up as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee even though you knew 2010 would be a very bad year for Democrats. Some colleagues say that without you there, the Democratic wipeout would have been even worse.

Picking through the rubble of 2010, you agreed to go toe-to-toe with Paul Ryan, the axe-wielding Republican glamour boy, taking the top Democratic slot on the House Budget Committee even though Democrats are powerless in the budgetary process.

Then you accepted a spot on the so-called Congressional supercommittee, with its impossible schedule and mission, to slash federal spending whether Democrats think it’s a good idea or not.

You’re Chris Van Hollen, and your party owes you.

But what do you get? When the state releases its draft Congressional redistricting map, what do you get?

The mapmakers chunk out almost half of your district so that pup, Rob Garagiola, can join you in Congress. You get new territory in rural Frederick and Carroll counties – a long way from Capitol Hill and a long way from your Kensington home, psychologically even more than physically.

To the east, Donna Edwards, ambitious, yes, but no rival to you yet, is moved out, and John Sarbanes, the dauphin, probably the only person in the Maryland House delegation who can deny you a Senate seat, is given some prime Montgomery County real estate and an opportunity to make some new and important friends.

You’re Chris Van Hollen, and word among insiders is you’re livid.

Steny Hoyer got to keep College Park in his district, as he requested. Dutch Ruppersberger got to keep the military installations he wanted. What did you get? Not a lot, at the first few glances.

But what do you do? You privately tell the governor your reservations about the map, as all seven of your colleagues did. Your spokeswoman bravely tells The Washington Post that you’re looking forward to meeting new people, as if redistricting is some kind of dating service.

For you, the issue is not political survival. Worst-case scenario, you get 58 percent of the vote running for re-election, instead of the 75 percent you’re accustomed to getting – even if a nice, serious guy like David Brinkley runs against you.

And after all your work for the DCCC, you know the value of a pick-up, even a pick-up of just one seat. Roscoe Bartlett’s seat is gettable, and you know it will require everybody to sacrifice a little – and you to sacrifice a little bit more.

With Bartlett’s seat in the bag, Democrats need to pick up two dozen more to take back the House – and the swings of the last three election cycles have been a lot greater than that. Sure, President Obama is drowning and Democratic gains in 2012 seem nearly impossible at the moment. But who knows what the landscape will look like a year from now? You take back that majority and suddenly you’re House Budget chairman. Not bad.

But the issue here is respect – and the future.

If you’re Chris Van Hollen, that Sarbanes thing rankles. Other people are already anticipating that next big Senate race in Maryland, even if you’re not. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The 75-year-old Mikulski has indicated that she has no intention of leaving the Senate as long as she has the energy to keep making the trip down from Baltimore. And while he’ll be 69 when he runs for re-election next year, Cardin has gleefully pointed out that many of his forebears lived into their 90’s.

Still, when political people in Maryland make their mental calculations about the next Senate vacancy, you’re at the head of the line. Very few of the other potential candidates can even touch you when it comes to book smarts, political smarts, national contacts, fundraising ability, and, oh yes, real accomplishments.

But Sarbanes? Well, he’s got that name. A lot of voters probably think he’s Senator already. And now he can establish a beachhead in Montgomery County, where some of the most influential Democratic voters live.

The notable thing about Sarbanes’ district as it’s currently drawn is that it isn’t really rooted anywhere. It has a piece of Baltimore City and a piece of Baltimore County, Annapolis and a piece of Howard County. Now it will have a piece of Montgomery.

It doesn’t mean Sarbanes will now have a base in Montgomery County – that’s still your territory, and you’ll always have plenty of loyalists there. But it means that people there will have to pay attention to him, and the media will have to pay attention. The Post. The Post – so integral to your own political rise – will have to pay attention!

But you’ve beaten the establishment and stunned the nay-sayers before. They didn’t want you to run against Patty Sher in ’94, but you cleaned her clock. They thought you were crazy to cast aside so many other enticing options to run against Mark Shriver, but you beat him, too. The Sarbanes name may not seem all that intimidating after you’ve outhustled the Kennedy machine.

And the Senate is not all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe you don’t want to wait till you’re 60 to be a freshman there.

Staying in the House may have its appeal. Pelosi, Hoyer and the rest of their crowd – they’re septuagenarians. They’re not sticking around Congress that long. Your rivals for the next generation of top House leadership positions seem to be Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Xavier Becerra – nice people and talented pols, but not without their flaws. Maybe, if the Democrats ever get their act together again, you could wind up being Speaker – a prize that has eluded Steny Hoyer, who doubted you back in 2002.

So if you’re Chris Van Hollen, it’s good to have options – and it’s good to have a little chip on your shoulder.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

P.G. Law

Race and Races

The Company He Keeps

Baltimore Ravin’s

Jack Johnson and the Offal Truth

Betting the Chalk

Death Knell for Democrats?

The Bruce of Summer

Nightmare Scenario

Sources: Congressional delegation Dems eye Bartlett as redistricting target
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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.