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CAMPAIGN 2000

For Gephardt, the Goal Is a Democratic Majority in the House

Elections: Since last election, the party leader has focused on building its resources and reclaiming the speaker's gavel.

November 04, 2000|DAVID ESPO | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — With the House floor quiet one recent afternoon, Democratic leader Dick Gephardt left the Capitol for a short drive to his party's campaign offices.

There, in a small conference room, aides began contacting campaign donors around the country, transferring the call to Gephardt each time a potential contributor came on the line. The pledges collected that day and dozens of days like it over the last 22 months constitute the strongest weapon in the Democratic arsenal as they battle for control of the House on Tuesday..

"This is part of the way that you win the opportunity to set the agenda," says Gephardt. "That's why I do it."

A switch of eight seats would mean a Democratic majority next year. That would allow the 59-year-old lawmaker from St. Louis to take back the speaker's gavel he handed to Newt Gingrich in 1995.

Fund-raising aside, the 12-term lawmaker has used his office with single-minded purpose since the last election to prepare for this one. He's infuriated Republicans at times, largely unified his own caucus and, for the first time since 1995, has made sure Democrats have enough money to compete effectively with Republicans.

Gephardt, said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) "doesn't expect to win every day. He just doesn't get into certain fights."

Defining Gephardt's leadership style, McDermott added: "He listens and listens and listens. Everybody comes out thinking they're going to be treated fairly and their advice heard. And then he wiggles his way out of some tight spots."

When Democrats unexpectedly gained seats rather than losing them in the impeachment-era election of 1998, Gephardt dropped plans to seek the White House. He redirected his effort to the House for what is probably his last chance to become speaker and the last chance many aging senior Democrats have to regain lost power.

Tapping aides who had been ticketed for roles in the White House campaign, he took virtually complete control of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. For chairman, he turned to Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, an energetic young Democrat with a family name that could help open checkbooks.

Throughout 1999, he used the promise of plum committee seats to persuade House members to seek reelection rather than retire or run for statewide office. Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was promised a seat on the Appropriations Committee if Democrats won a majority.

So free has he been with these pledges that the joke in Gephardt's office is that the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee would have to meet in 56,454-seat Robert F. Kennedy stadium to accommodate the expanded membership.

Gephardt united his fractious caucus behind a poll-tested agenda of HMO reform, prescription drugs for Medicare and campaign finance reform. And he flayed Republicans regularly when they refused to pass it, even though close associates concede that partisan advantage, not passing legislation, was on his mind.

"This has been the best Congress the HMOs, insurance companies and other special interests could buy," he said recently.

When unity wasn't possible, he labored to prevent damage. Thus, with his caucus split over legislation to normalize trade relations with China, he declared his opposition, then stepped back uncomplainingly while supporters worked with the White House and Republicans to pass it.

When Republicans split his caucus with popular bills, Gephardt privately urged vulnerable Democrats to break ranks rather than place their seats in jeopardy.

He recalled a conversation with first-term Rep. Joseph Hoeffel of Pennsylvania when Republicans placed a "marriage penalty" tax cut on the floor. "I said, 'Joe, please don't lose this election over this. We can afford you to vote for this. Please vote for it.' " Hoeffel voted against the bill, part of what he calls his attempt to build a record of fiscal responsibility.

Not surprisingly, Gephardt's tactics have angered Republicans.

Two years ago, Gephardt and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) talked of a joint outing to a baseball game. The relationship deteriorated, though, and Hastert recently took the unusual step of campaigning in Gephardt's district for his GOP opponent.

Republicans say Hastert felt betrayed by Gephardt during a controversy over appointment of a new House chaplain, in particular that he did not step in to stop allegations of anti-Roman Catholic prejudice.

Those making the charges, Hastert said in a floor speech the day he appointed a priest to the post, "don't know me or are maliciously seeking political advantage by making these accusations."

Behind the closed doors of the GOP leadership, sources say Hastert has noted that Gephardt has taken on the obstructionist's role and used his time to raise campaign money while Republicans are constantly struggling to line up votes.

While Gephardt has traveled to dozens of districts in the past year to campaign personally for Democrats, there's no doubt that raising campaign money is a priority.

By Democratic tally, Gephardt personally, either by phone, in person or in direct-mail appeals, has raised $37 million for the DCCC so far this election cycle. That's almost half the committee's $80 million total, and roughly as much as the party's political arm raised for all of the 1997-1998 election cycle.

Recalling a dinner conversation he had with then-Speaker Gingrich after the Republicans won control of the House in 1994, Gephardt said, "I asked him how he did it."

"He had a one-word answer: 'Money.' "

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