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TONY COELHO'S DRAMATIC RISE MEANS A NEW STYLE IN DEMOCRATIC LEADERSHIP AND NEW CLOUT FOR THE CALIFORNIA DELEGATION. : POWER in the HOUSE

January 11, 1987|BOB SECTER | Bob Secter has covered the California congressional delegation for The Times.

TONY COELHO CRADLED THE MICROphone in his hands, rocked forward on the balls of his feet and launched into the punch line of his standard stump speech.

"You know, politics reminds me of driving a car," he told the working-class crowd in Pueblo, Colo., which had gathered on a cement basketball court in a local park to cheer Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Democrat running for Congress. "You put it in D and you go forward. You put it in R and you go backward."

The line was sure to get a roar out of any audience, and Coelho knew it. He repeated it often that day last October: at the Campbell rally in the morning; at a half-time pep talk in a Mile High Stadium sky box where high-ranking Democrats such as Gary Hart had gathered during a Denver Broncos game to fete congressional hopeful Dave Skaggs; over Caesar salads and steaks at a fund-raiser for Skaggs that night in an elegant suburban Denver restaurant.

It resurfaced the next day at fund-raisers for other Democrats in Eugene, Ore., and Seattle, and the next day in Los Angeles, and the next in Turlock and Merced and Modesto, in Coelho's home district in the San Joaquin Valley. Later in the week it was sure to come back at stops that included Salt Lake City; Midland, Mich., and Kokomo, Ind.

Everywhere he went, Coelho wedged press conferences and interviews in between speeches; ducked into phone booths to get reports from his Washington office on the progress of House campaigns around the country, and put the touch on potential contributors--large and small--for funds. Campaign season was in full flower, and Coelho, the turbocharged politician who had led his party's congressional campaign drive since 1981, had kicked his usual hectic pace into an even higher gear. He had long since passed Drive; he was well into Overdrive.

IF THERE IS ANYONE WHO RELISHES LIFE in the political fast lane, it is Coelho. "I don't like to walk the white line," he said while scuttling between stops in the Northwest. "It's not exciting to me. I like to be on one side or the other and to be moving fast from one side or the other. I only know one way--full throttle." His mother, Alice, once told reporters that she was glad her switched-on son had turned to politics rather than the priesthood he had once hoped to enter. "I knew he'd become one of those fooling-around priests," she confided.

What he became, instead, was one of Congress' hardest-working and fastest-rising stars--a brash, hustling, wily partisan who has carved out a role as a key Democratic tactician and Republican-basher. A master fund-raiser, he spent six years as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee--the organization that coordinates and aids Democratic House campaigns--transforming it from a moribund, debt-ridden shadow of its Republican counterpart to a cash-rich, high-tech powerhouse. As a reward for his tenacity and the political favors he did for others, Democratic colleagues easily elected Coelho party whip--the No. 3 leadership post in the House--in the Congress that convened last week. Says Rep. George Miller, a fellow California Democrat and one of Coelho's closest confidants in the House: "Like the ad on TV, he got whip the old fashioned way. He earned it."

But to Rep. Daniel E. Lungren, a conservative Long Beach Republican who is no slouch himself when it comes to partisan haggling, the rise of Coelho signals an ominous trend. "It's a comment on where we are that one can move up the political system based primarily on the money he can accumulate and disseminate," Lungren says.

In a tradition-laden institution in which seniority has always meant power, such a promotion is almost meteoric. At 44, Coelho, who is starting only his fifth two-year term, is one of the youngest members ever to become a House leader. To many of his colleagues, Coelho represents the future of a political party that has clung too tightly to its past. His elevation symbolizes the decline of the House's New Deal Democrats and the flowering of a pragmatic, media-savvy generation of party yuppies with little use for authority and political traditions but a healthy respect for the role of money in politics. Even liberal New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel, who was Coelho's chief rival for the whip's job, marvels at the Californian's willingness to take on and master the money-raising role that most others in the party thought unseemly. "Everyone wants the money, but no one wants to get their hands dirty," Rangel says.

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