Josh Kurtz: Ten Years After

By Josh Kurtz

Mark Shriver was on “Meet the Press” the other day. And on “Charlie Rose” a few days before that.

For the past several weeks he’s been on a nationwide book tour, promoting his new memoir, “A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver.” Last month he was feted at a book party chock-full of Washington A-Listers.

During this same period, Chris Van Hollen was sweating his way through several 4th of July parades around his congressional district. He hit every civic event he was able to and was working on introducing himself to a huge swath of new voters, most of them in hostile territory.

That’s in addition to his day job, where as the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee he must do battle daily with rabid, divorced-from-reality Republicans who are determined to drive a stake through the heart of federal government – and are largely succeeding.

So 10 years after the epic Democratic primary battle between Van Hollen and Shriver, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask: Who really won?

Before trying to answer that question, it’s worthwhile to recall that seminal campaign. A Washington Post headline from 2002 seemed to say it all: “Shaping Up as an Amazing Race.”

Democrats were primed to oust Republican Congresswoman Connie Morella, who had held the seat for 16 years. Up until 2000, she had seemed indestructible, wiping out formidable contenders like Ralph Neas and Peter Franchot and an array of lesser foes.

Then in 2000, Terry Lierman, spending $2 million of his own fortune, came within 5 points of ousting Morella – and might have won if a legal but questionable loan he had given to Virginia Congressman Jim Moran (D), a personal friend, hadn’t come to light. As soon as Lierman announced that he wouldn’t seek a rematch in 2002, the race was on.

It’s easy to forget that Shriver and Van Hollen weren’t the only Democratic candidates. Also running was Ira Shapiro, a former Clinton administration official and Capitol Hill staffer, whose resume fairly screamed “Congressman,” and Deborah Vollmer, who was a bit of a kook but held solid progressive positions and had twice been the Democratic nominee in a conservative California congressional district.

But it was Shriver and Van Hollen, the genial telegenic Annapolis heavyweights, who captured the public’s attention and inflamed the passions of Democratic activists.

Shriver seemed to have all the advantages, with the Kennedy charm and money and connections. Steny Hoyer showed up at one of his fundraisers. Caroline Kennedy headlined another. Uncle Teddy called in several chits, blocking environmental groups from endorsing Van Hollen and smoothing the way for unions to back his nephew.

Equally significant, Shriver had an all-star team around him. His top consultant was David Plouffe – who only elected a guy named Barack Obama as president a few years later. His campaign manager was Mike Henry – who has been the top Democratic strategist in Virginia for more than a decade, and who also served as Hillary Clinton’s deputy campaign manager in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Van Hollen, on the other hand, seemed to have a rag-tag operation, led for months by Dorothy Davidson, a 70-ish veteran of countless Montgomery County campaigns who had a precinct-by-precinct sense of where the votes were. Van Hollen switched media consultants in the middle of the campaign, and didn’t get a full-time campaign manager until two months before the primary, when Steve Jost, like Plouffe a veteran of Dick Gephardt’s political operation, but with Maryland roots, came aboard.

Both Van Hollen and Shriver had accomplished careers in Annapolis. Shriver played it safe, picking one or two mom-and-apple pie issues to work each legislative session and getting them through in impressive fashion. Van Hollen, on the other hand, was a risk-taker who was at the center of every controversy, often at odds with legislative leaders, yet enormously effective.

It seemed hard to bet against Shriver. He had money and unions, with their vaunted turnout operation, on his side. Most polls showed him with a slim lead – and most Democrats predicting that he would be their nominee.

Well, we all know what happened. Following Dorothy Davidson’s script – and taking advantage of a phenomenon that could only happen in a place like Montgomery County, where the smarter, more accomplished candidate is actually rewarded for being smarter and more accomplished — Van Hollen won by 2 points.

For Van Hollen, the hard work was just beginning. Morella remained a popular and formidable incumbent. When the four Democratic candidates got together three days after the primary for a “unity” news conference, there was little joy evident. They all seemed like they were nursing serious hangovers.

But Parris Glendening gave Democrats a huge assist, altering the district lines so greatly that Morella simply could not win. In the end, Van Hollen won the general election by 3.5 points.

Van Hollen’s trajectory since then is well known. He’s a leader among House Democrats and is poised to rise even higher when Hoyer and Nancy Pelosi retire. He almost ran for Senate in 2006, and will be at the head of the line whenever Barbara Mikulski or Ben Cardin move on.

Shriver went to work for the group Save the Children, but essentially disappeared from the Maryland scene. A poignant public moment came in 2003, a full year after Shriver’s primary defeat, when the entire Shriver clan jubilantly surrounded Arnold Schwarzenegger after he won the gubernatorial recall election in California. It looked like the victory party Shriver himself never had.

Shriver agonized about running for Congress again in 2006 as Van Hollen pondered the Senate race. Luckily for him, he never had to pull the trigger.

Today, Shriver says losing to Van Hollen is the best thing that ever happened to him. Asked recently by the Post if he thinks he’ll ever run for office again, Shriver replied, “Never.”

Shriver has transformed and grown the domestic operations of Save the Children immeasurably. He has spent quality time with his wife and three kids, who are still fairly young. He has been there for both his famous parents as they grew infirm and eventually died. And he has written an extraordinary and personal book about his father.

(Morella, it must be pointed out, has also had a nice life after losing to Van Hollen, serving for a few years in Paris as the U.S. ambassador to OECD, the international economic development organization.)

Which brings us back to Van Hollen. Bright as his future is, it’s also murky. How quickly will senior House Democratic leaders step aside? Will he be able to outmaneuver his competition? How long will he be able to function in a Republican Congress without losing his mind? Will Democrats ever retake the House?

Closer to home, Mikulski and Cardin show no signs of retiring, and Van Hollen will have to watch out for John Sarbanes and Donna Edwards whenever that day comes. And with his own kids getting older and his mom passing away a few years back, has Van Hollen been able to devote as much time to his personal life as he’d like?

You sacrifice a lot to be in politics. There are plenty of rewards, but the pace and the frustrations are unending.

So who really won the Shriver-Van Hollen primary?

You’d like to think they both did, but you can’t help wondering sometimes.

Please don’t forget to send me suggestions for people we missed in our recent two-part “Influencers” series. We’ll publish them in the next couple of weeks.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Influencers, Part II

The Influencers, Part I

Left, Right and Center

Road to Succeed Pelosi May Run Through Maryland

A Change Is Gonna Come (And The Audacity of Nope)

Say Cheese

Taxman

Generally Speaking (Part 2)

Generally Speaking (Part 1)

Charm Offensive

Bad Karma in Annapolis II — Limbo Edition

Heather Mizeur, Superstar