Democratic U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, sharply dressed in a black suit and tie, smiles calmly as he talks to local federal retirees gathered at a Mount Airy church one recent morning for a health care forum. The House of Representative’s senior budget Democrat, Van Hollen appears unruffled by the hour-long drive from his Kensington home in southern Montgomery County that ends with crawling construction traffic on two-lane South Main Street. Aides inform him he needs to cut short his visit to return to budget negotiations on Capitol Hill because Republicans have again suggested federal employees contribute more to their retirement accounts.
Van Hollen opens the forum and swiftly runs through his major talking points for the group of about 40 seniors. He emphasizes the benefits of the Affordable Care Act while recognizing the start-up problems of the healthcare.gov website. He says that during budget talks he aims to protect federal workers who “have born the brunt” of the budget crises. And he laments about the ongoing partisan battles over the federal budget and healthcare law that led to the 16-day federal government shutdown in October. “I respect my colleague and friend [Republican Rep.] Paul Ryan,” Van Hollen says, “but he is someone I disagree with strongly.”
On a December night a week and a half later, Democratic Rep. John Delaney of Potomac—also a southern Montgomery County resident and similarly suited up—speaks at the Maryland Motor Transit Association banquet at Dutch’s Daughter Restaurant. Encouraged by Republican state Sen. David Brinkley’s introductory remarks that suggest support for Delaney’s infrastructure financing bill, the House freshman and former businessman delves into his talking points on his proposal to finance the legislation’s initial $50 billion through investment bonds purchased by private corporations in exchange for a tax break on overseas earnings.
Participants are quiet, seemingly sedated from the meal and late weeknight hour, while music blares from the banquet room next door where members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are gathered for a holiday party. Delaney, son of an IBEW member who relied in part on union scholarship funds for college, had just minutes before dashed into the party to shake hands after district vice president Ken Cooper and his colleagues expressed a desire to chat with him. “His dad was one of ours!” they declare. “He’s a great guy!”
The congressmen’s visits, tightly scheduled between duties in Washington, D.C., are efforts to connect with constituents in the northern reaches of their newly redrawn districts—Delaney’s District 6 and Van Hollen’s District 8 that divide Frederick County. The two recognize the need to mingle with constituents long accustomed to the voice and sight of conservative Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, whose congressional career spanned two decades before his defeat in 2012 to Delaney. Due to redistricting, the two Democrats each now share part of Bartlett’s old territory, including a now-divided Frederick County. And while the two share party affiliation and some liberal social and environmental views, they differ starkly in their backgrounds, interests and style.
Van Hollen has been called a “policy wonk” and a “rising star” since the 1990s when he served in the Maryland General Assembly. His knack for deciphering and discussing the intricate details of public policy, combined with his political savvy, telegenic looks and quick charm, has consistently helped him pave a path to higher profile, senior positions. He routinely appears on Sunday morning talk shows and news programs, and is frequently mentioned as a strong candidate for an open Senate seat or as House Speaker.
He grew up in the world of public service. He was born in 1959 in Karchi, Pakistan, where his father was based as a Foreign Service officer, an authority on Southeast Asian affairs, and the family moved frequently depending on his father’s assignment. Van Hollen’s mother was fluent in multiple languages and became a top intelligence analyst on Afghanistan and South Asia for the State Department.
Van Hollen followed with his own accomplishments, earning degrees from Swarthmore, Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and Georgetown University Law Center. As a legislative assistant for Republican U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. of Maryland in the early 1980s, he helped draft a resolution aimed at pushing the Senate to ratify two comprehensive nuclear test ban treaties negotiated with the Soviet Union. He served as an aide to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the late 1980s and spent four days visiting Kurdish refugee camps along the Turkish border to help write a report on Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons. He served as senior legislative adviser to Democratic Gov. Donald Schaefer before making a successful run in 1990 for a seat in the House of Delegates, where he quickly made his mark. “When he spoke on the floor, people listened,” says former Frederick County Del. J. Anita Stup, a Republican.
Four years later, Van Hollen easily won a state Senate seat and stepped into high-profile battles on budget and taxes, gun control and Potomac River rights. He became known as “Mr. Fix-It”; he helped shepherd into law in 2000 a mandate that handguns sold in the state be equipped with trigger locks and he led negotiations on a state tobacco settlement. But during the 2002 General Assembly session, he resigned as chairman of a budget subcommittee to protest deep cuts to healthcare, environmental programs and higher education. He said he preferred raising the cigarette tax and delaying a scheduled 2-percent income tax cut.
Van Hollen retained his position as ranking member of the full budget committee and in that year’s congressional primary narrowly beat former Del. Mark K. Shriver, a former staffer to President Bill Clinton and JFK’s nephew. He went on to defeat moderate Republican Connie Morella, a popular 16-year veteran. Van Hollen was one of just two Democrats in 2002 to take a GOP-held seat in the House.
Democratic leaders in Washington immediately embraced him. They asked him to help lead candidate recruitment for the 2006 election. After the party regained control of the House, they named him chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the next election. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also tapped him to serve as her liaison to the White House in 2009. He helped negotiate last-minute deals on health care reform, including an agreement allowing a vote on an amendment to ban abortion funding. On the oversight committee, he and New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer pushed legislation to impose strict disclosure requirements on campaign advertising by corporations and unions; he lured conservative support by negotiating language that essentially exempted the National Rifle Association. He also served on the influential Ways and Means Committee.
DCCC chairman for the 2010 elections, Van Hollen tried to help Democrats rationalize votes to increase the nation’s debt limit and tried to counter the Tea Party movement. His party lost control of the House, but colleagues elected him vice chairman of the Budget Committee.
Van Hollen, a father of three, turns 55 this month and his once-blond curls have grayed, but he maintains his enthusiasm for policy. Stepping one recent morning into his expansive office in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill, he grins and states, “We’re in the middle of budget negotiations right now!” Then he sits down for an hour-long conversation on his career and thoughts on major public policy.
He delves into details about partisan differences on budget policy. Van Hollen announced at the start of last fall’s House-Senate budget negotiations that Democrats wouldn’t accept major cuts in large social programs without tax revenue increases. He criticizes Ryan’s opposition to closing tax loopholes, his calls for more tax cuts and refusal to spend more on infrastructure. He also criticizes the House GOP leadership for not permitting a vote on his own budget proposal that would end some tax breaks for the wealthy and large companies.
Democratic campaign strategists in 2012 called on Van Hollen to play the role of Ryan—running as vice presidential candidate on the GOP ticket with Mitt Romney—in practice debates with Vice President Joe Biden. He was delighted. “I know Paul Ryan’s lines, [and] I’ve mastered his accent,” Van Hollen says, laughing.
A minority party player in the House now, his frustrations over the recent government shutdown are clear. In a so-called “parliamentary inquiry” of GOP Rep. Jason Chavez of Utah, then managing the floor, he questioned why the Republicans passed a rule barring anyone but House Majority Leader Eric Cantor from requesting a vote on a Senate measure to fund and reopen the government.
He still criticizes Republicans for attempting to nix the 2010 health care law. He agrees “the rollout of the website has been a disaster.” But he reminds constituents other portions of the law already took effect, such as a provision he helped insert allowing young people to stay on their parents’ insurance plans until they are 26. “People have to remember the individual market was working horribly before,” he says. “This is the way to go.”
Van Hollen accuses GOP Speaker John Boehner of Ohio for a failure in leadership during budget debate that led to the shutdown when a contingent of conservatives insisted on defunding Obamacare. “Yes, you have to listen to your caucus. But you have to exercise leadership and make decisions for the good of the country. … I see a small faction of the [Republican] caucus running the show … they are making unreasonable ideological demands,” Van Hollen says.
Some conservative activists in his newly drawn district contend Van Hollen is out of touch with the rural constituents he inherited. Michelle Jefferson of Westminster, head of a local Tea Party group, says, “There is not one issue I agree with the man on.” She continues, “There is absolutely nothing we have in common with Montgomery County.”
To counter criticism, Van Hollen opened a district office in Mount Airy last year and attends meetings around the county. And he says his seat on Budget allows him to influence funding and policy for a range of issues. In budget discussions at the end of 2013, he advocated an end to the sequester cuts that squeezed National Institutes of Health budgets and forced local companies to reduce payrolls. He struggles for a solution to the shortfall in the highway trust fund to help finance improvements on the I-270 corridor and keeps tabs on the drafting of new food safety regulations on behalf of farmers. He authored provisions in the 2008 farm bill that provided assistance to farmers to meet requirements aimed at protecting the Chesapeake Bay.
Delaney, a newcomer to elected office, insists he can help forge bipartisan solutions to the nation’s economic woes. The 50-year-old former business executive says he’s willing to press his ideas and wait as long as it takes for colleagues to follow along. One of the many books on display in the waiting area of his Capitol Hill office is a collection of Winston Churchill speeches titled Never Give In.
A balding man of average height and typically dressed in a blue blazer, Delaney fits more the stereotype of a local town businessman rather than wealthiest man in Congress. (His financial disclosure reports list his wealth is in the range of $46.9 million to $231.2 million.) The common profile may suit him just fine, as he likes to recount his background as the son of an electrician, raised in a three-bedroom, colonial style house in the small blue-collar town of Wood-Ridge, N.J.
Delaney’s mother pressed him to become a doctor and pursue the “next step in the American Dream,” he says. But his biology studies and laboratory internships didn’t appeal to him and he sought another career as a lawyer that would satisfy his parents. While at Georgetown Law School, a job at a small D.C. law and real estate development firm sparked an interest in business that led him to join with two classmates later to purchase a home healthcare business. The purchase price: $15,000, he says. “We turned it around from a really, really small business to just a small business,” he says—one that produced $2 million in sales before it was sold in 1993.
The difficulty Delaney and his partners had obtaining a bank loan for that business gave them the idea of lending money to small and medium-sized healthcare companies nationwide. They started Healthcare Financial Partners, based in Chevy Chase, in 1993 after raising $25 million from large investors, he says. As chief executive officer, Delaney ran the company for three years before taking it public in 1996. Three years later they sold the company to Heller Financial for about $483 million.
In 2000, he launched Capitol Source Inc. in Chevy Chase after raising $500 million, he says. Capitol Source provided financing to small and medium-sized businesses and went public in 2003. Delaney stepped down as CEO in 2009 and served as chairman until he won his congressional seat in 2012. Delaney then dabbled in nonprofit work, reportedly raised about $800,000 for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, and crafted a plan he dubbed “Blueprint Maryland” in which he assessed the state’s economic needs.
The relative political novice, now a father of four, entered the District 6 primary and faced the state Democratic Party’s hand-picked candidate, state Senate Majority Leader Rob Garagiola. Armed with an endorsement from Clinton, Delaney defeated Garagiola and then easily beat Bartlett in the redrawn and Democratic-rich district.
In the House, Delaney was elected one of four Democratic class presidents and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer added him to the whip team responsible for securing votes on legislation. Leaders granted him a relatively coveted seat on the Financial Services Committee and a spot on the Joint Economic Committee.
Seeking a moderate pathway, Delaney joined the pro-business New Democrat Coalition. His wife, April, says they bought a house on Capitol Hill where they can host nonprofit events and bipartisan discussions. The couple planned a regular Monday night football gathering for the freshman class, “Just to get people to start talking. … It’s harder to be a jerk to somebody” you socialize with, she says. “We’ve been so blessed with resources, so it’s how we can make a difference.”
He has split with a majority of Democrats on a few major votes; he supported a GOP bill to loosen regulations on derivatives trading that was central to the 2008 financial services crisis, and a bill to lift an offshore oil drilling moratorium along the border of Mexico. But he later opposed a GOP bill to change the approval process for drilling permits on federal land and a bill to bar enforcement of federal regulations on hydraulic fracturing in states with their own rules. He supports federal spending on infrastructure and NIH programs, but also wants to further private investment to reduce the local economy’s reliance on federal contracts.
Delaney also backs a plan to address climate change, has pledged to campaign for a state minimum wage hike and supports some gun control measures. He co-sponsored a bill to make workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal and wants employers to pay men and women the same wages for similar jobs.
He joined his party in voting against Ryan’s budget in March 2013, contending it would “hurt the private sector it purports to champion.” He praised Van Hollen’s budget for advancing investments in education and infrastructure, but added, “I look forward to it being improved with appropriate entitlement reform and deficit reduction.”
As of last month, he had seen House passage of one of his three bills—to renew and expand the makeup of the Veterans Advisory Committee on Education Improvement. But he likes to talk about “The Partnership to Build America Act,” which he pushed quietly at first in one-on-one discussions with colleagues. By last month he had 25 Democratic co-sponsors and 25 Republican; Democrat Dutch Ruppersberger and Republican Andy Harris were the only members of the state delegation to sign on.
While behind-the-scenes supporters as well as colleagues and aides quietly mention his seeming reluctance to stand into the limelight, Delaney has made more appearances as he gains confidence with his message on the bill.
Sitting in his Capitol Hill office (one floor down from Van Hollen’s), Delaney consistently redirects a discussion to business financing, rattling off economic statistics and detailing his visions for repatriating corporate overseas tax revenue into the nation’s infrastructure. He says his plan could guarantee a stream of money for the highway trust fund that finances highway and transportation projects, such as the I-270 corridor. And he’s pushed it as a way to bridge budgetary differences between the parties.
Some Democratic aides on the Hill, however, quietly question his willingness to offer up a Democratic priority of ending a corporate practice of keeping profits overseas to avoid taxes. Delaney responds, “The best deals are the ones where everyone feels a little bad.”
Delaney tries to avoid lashing out at the GOP. “If you have to get people to work with you from the other side … you can’t say bad things about them.” He had reportedly said in August that his eight months in office had helped to establish him as a “cooler head” in Congress. But during the government shutdown, he stated in an op-ed piece: “The illogical and somewhat mean-spirited standoff that led to this shutdown is first evidence of everything that is wrong with Washington. More specifically, it is a prime example of what happens when special or self-interest is valued more than the common good of the country.” Was it a sign of frustration coming from a level-headed businessman seeking bipartisan peace? “We’re all human, after all,” he says.
Written by Christina L. Lyons, copyright 2014 Frederick Magazine