Washington Prowler

The Black Caucus Is Back!

Lott and Pelosi alike are feeling its presence. ALSO: Giving up on Gore in the Grassroots -- while Daschle heads for Iowa and beefs up his staff.

By 12.12.02

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ALL EYES ON WILLIAM JEFFERSON
Thanks to Trent Lott and Nancy Pelosi, the Congressional Black Caucus, which for months had been as irrelevant as the other caucuses in the House, has suddenly become front-page news. With Lott's comments on Strom Thurmond filling up the news sections in what should have been a slow news period leading into Christmas, the CBC has been all over the place, calling for his stepping aside as leader, giving interviews to all of the network and cable news shows, and sending out press releases faster than Al Gore can say, "Recount."

But perhaps more important -- to Republicans in the long-term -- is the influence the CBC is attempting to wield in the appointment of the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They continue to press House leader Pelosi to appoint Louisiana Rep. William Jefferson to the DCCC slot, despite his lack of experience in House leadership. And Pelosi apparently has big doubts.

"She just doesn't know that he's up to the job," says a staffer in her leadership office. "She seems to realize that this is a critical couple of years. We don't want another election cycle like the one we've just had with [Rep. Nita] Lowey."

Jefferson, whose campaigning in the recent Louisiana runoff helped Democrats win key Senate and House seats last Saturday, is being pushed by the DCCC, as well as by outside Democrats like Clinton and Gore adviser Donna Brazile. Pelosi, with the Lott furor continuing to bubble, now finds herself in a tighter spot than she was a week ago, when she was only being criticized for not moving fast enough on the DCCC appointment.

"Now it looks like she's dawdling over Jefferson specifically, and with everything going on with Lott, that isn't good," says the leadership staffer. "She may not want Jefferson for very strategic reasons, particularly if she thinks she can get a more experienced hand there. But the Black Caucus won't buy that, and right now they have a lot of momentum behind them."

The "more experienced hand" is thought to be Rep. Martin Frost, who briefly challenged Pelosi for leadership, and who previously has been a successful DCCC chair. Frost hasn't indicated whether he's interested in revisiting the job, though moderate House Democrats have been pressing Pelosi to pick him over Jefferson.

GORE'S GROWING GRASSROOTS LOSSES
One reason Al Gore may not run for president in 2004: he's quickly losing grassroots experience to other candidates. In the past six months, Gore has seen almost his entire grassroots coordination team in New Hampshire move on to other candidates. "We're all committing to other people," says a former volunteer now committed to Sen. John Kerry. "We didn't know what he was doing. It's nothing against the guy."

Actually it is. Many if not all members of Gore's New Hampshire organization could have waited for their former boss's decision, said to be due sometime after Christmas. Instead, for months they've been jumping on the bandwagon of other likely contenders: Kerry, Sen. John Edwards, even Sen. Joe Lieberman, who quietly has been slotting volunteers in the Granite State for what he expects will be a run.

Gore also appears to have lost his key adviser for the Iowa caucuses. Steve Hildebrand, who ran Gore's 2000 run in Iowa, and who engineered Sen. Tim Johnson's re-election last month, is said to have signed up with South Dakota's other senator, Tom Daschle. While the senior senator has not made a decision on whether he will run for the presidency, Hildebrand is considered one of the top hands in Democratic politics, particularly in the Midwest.

As it happens, Daschle will be in Iowa this weekend, speaking to citizen and business groups. And while his trip isn't considered the prelude to harder campaigning leading into an announcement that he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination, it is coming off a long lunch meeting with DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe, for one, is telling anyone who will listen that Daschle will probably be running, perhaps based on what was said at the lunch, perhaps based on the Capitol Hill buzz that Daschle's personal and leadership staff has been doing preliminary interviewing for senior-level staff slots that may be created inside his leadership team for the 108th Congress. Either way, it appears Daschle is planning to be extremely active in his minority leadership role -- the sort of activity that can lead to a presidential run.

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