Even before his swearing in Tuesday as Maryland’s next U.S. senator, it’s already clear that Kensington’s Chris Van Hollen won’t be a typical freshman.
Van Hollen, the first Montgomery County resident in a century to represent Maryland in the Senate, has already been named to a key leadership post and appointed to a powerful committee.
But in a recent interview with Bethesda Beat, Van Hollen portrayed himself as a reluctant suitor when it came to pursuing the chairmanship of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm.
“I saw my name leaked in the newspapers as someone who might have the DSCC—and I went into hiding for four days,” he recalled with a laugh. “I then had a conversation with [Senate Minority Leader] Chuck Schumer, and we had about a three-day negotiation just to work it out.”
In the talks with Schumer, Van Hollen leveraged the daunting challenge of protecting the Democrats’ current position in the Senate in 2018 to acquire a coveted seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee that had been occupied by his predecessor, Barbara Mikulski.
Normally, a senator must have several years of seniority before landing a seat on the appropriations panel, which has jurisdiction over what federal departments and agencies can spend.
“I told Chuck Schumer I would take [the DSCC chairmanship] on, working in partnership with him,” Van Hollen recounted. “I think it’s really vitally important to issues that are important to the country, because the Senate Democrats are the last blue line between the Trump administration and a lot of potentially bad things happening.”
But Van Hollen said that he also told Schumer: “I need to be able to say to people in Maryland that I’m able to meet our priorities, and deliver to the people of Maryland. Sen. Mikulski has been on the Appropriations Committee, and it’s really important that I be there too.”
Schumer, according to Van Hollen, “understood.”
Van Hollen’s auspicious entry into the Senate follows a pattern throughout a quarter of a century in politics of moving into powerful positions not long after his arrival in a new legislative arena.
Van Hollen delivers his victory speech after winning the Senate seat in November. Credit: Joe Zimmermann
Elected to the Maryland Senate in 1994 after four years in the House of Delegates, Van Hollen found himself as vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, arguably that chamber’s most influential panel. Moving to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002, he was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2006 to 2010, assistant to the speaker from 2008 to 2010, and, since 2010, senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee.
Prior to Mikulski’s March 2015 retirement announcement and Van Hollen’s quick declaration that he would run to succeed her, his ascension had prompted speculation about his future as a possible House Democratic leader—and, perhaps, Maryland’s first U.S. House speaker.
Nevertheless, success as chairman of the DSCC has helped senators climb the leadership ladder to the top in the past. The latest example is Schumer, who chaired the DSCC during the 2005-2006 election cycle, when the party recaptured a Senate majority. It put the New Yorker on a path to become Senate Democratic leader during the coming 115th Congress.
But no one expects Van Hollen to be able to recapture Senate control for the Democrats in 2018, despite the party’s 48 seats putting it just three away from a majority in the 100-member body. In fact, it appears that Van Hollen's ascension to the DSCC chairmanship as an incoming freshman was in large measure a product of more senior colleagues not wanting the post.
“I…recognize that we’re in an incredibly tough year if you look at the Senate playing field and battlefield,” Van Hollen said, seeking to keep expectations in check.
Tough is arguably an understatement. Van Hollen will be charged with defending 25 Senate seats—23 held by Democrats and two by independents who caucus with the Democrats. That’s compared to only eight seats that the Republicans will be defending, with just one of those in a state that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won last month.
In contrast, Van Hollen will try to hold on to Democratic seats in as many as 11 states—five of which traditionally vote Republican in presidential elections, along with three others considered “purple” and another three that, while normally Democratic, swung to President-elect Donald Trump in November.
“I think people know that our major priority is to hold our forces,” Van Hollen said in response to questions about whether Senate Democrats have any prospect of regaining the majority in 2018. “The goal has to be to hold the blue line.”
He sidestepped a question about whether the goal is to hold on to the 48 seats the Democrats now have. “I’m just saying we have to hold the blue line,” he said with a smile.
Van Hollen did offer hints of the strategies that may guide his stewardship of the DSCC, as he discussed some of his legislative priorities as a new member of the Senate. He pointed to an economic plan he offered during his Senate campaign that he said embodied “policies that help build an economy that works for everyone.”
“I believe if the Democrats had really focused on those issues in the way we talked about in that plan, it would have connected much more with voters,” Van Hollen said in looking back at the outcome of the 2016 campaign. He cited one provision of his plan that would bar companies from receiving tax breaks for bonuses for executives unless workers receive a wage increase as productivity increases. “That’s the kind of thing that I think would resonate with people who are feeling stretched and left behind. It’s an idea that says ‘We don’t penalize people who do well, but we want to have a system that incentivizes more broadly shared prosperity’.”
Van Hollen insisted his DSCC duties won’t come at the expense of his newly acquired statewide constituency. “Actually, this is one of the benefits of being what we call a ‘local member’,” he said. “I’m one of the few members of Congress who goes home every night, back to my community, and it’s not that much further down the road to Baltimore city. So being from this area allows me to meet both those responsibilities.” He acknowledged, “If I lived in California, it would be tough.”
Van Hollen, left, with former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman at Taste of Bethesda in 2014. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Home for Van Hollen for the past 30 years has been Kensington, and he becomes only the second Montgomery County resident to represent Maryland in the Senate. The first, Blair Lee of Silver Spring, served in the Senate from 1913 to 1916, and belonged to a political dynasty that descended from a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
During the century since Lee, 10 Maryland senators have claimed the Baltimore area as their home. But Van Hollen downplayed the significance of the shift in political geography that his election represents.
“I don’t know all the history,” he said. “I have always taken the view that, in order for the state to be strong, we need to be looking out for every part of the state. While folks in the Baltimore area recognize the important role that Montgomery County and Prince George’s County play in our state economy, all of us need to recognize that Baltimore city is obviously the historical heart of our state, and we need to make sure that they’re strong.”
In fact, Van Hollen’s paternal great-grandfather ran a seafood packing company in Baltimore, and there is a Hollen Road in the city.
“It’s been great representing Montgomery County,” Van Hollen said, as he prepares to leave the 8th Congressional District seat he has held for 14 years. He then added with a smile, “But, as I did remind people during the campaign, the Van Hollen family is from Baltimore city.”