The two young operatives from New York toil away in a nondescript office building near a highway overpass on South Capitol Street in Washington, D.C. One of the men, Glen Weiner, boyish and unassuming, could easily be mistaken for a grad student in M.I.T.’s applied-mathematics department; the other, Howard Wolfson, bearish and sometimes acerbic, was derided recently in a glossy magazine as a “Garment District salesman.”
Democrats in New York and beyond, eager to avenge Al Gore’s demoralizing loss to George W. Bush, are placing their hopes in these two unlikely power brokers, who are charged with no less a task than seizing control of the House of Representatives and reversing the balance of power in Mr. Bush’s Washington.
Mr. Wolfson and Mr. Weiner–who last year constituted the nucleus of Hillary Clinton’s war room–are now the executive director and the director of polling and strategic planning for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Under the chairmanship of U.S. Representative Nita Lowey of Westchester, the two men are coordinating a $100 million effort to win control of the House in the 2002 midterm elections.
If Mrs. Clinton’s ascension to the Senate in New York was the ultimate revenge for the Republican Party’s impeachment of her husband, then a Democratic coup in the House in 2002 would represent something similar for those partisans who still haven’t recovered from the loss of the White House.
But in their quest to reverse the Presidential debacle of 2000, Mr. Wolfson, 34, and Mr. Weiner, 31, have their work cut out for them. Scores of Congressional Democrats embroiled in tough races across the country next year will besiege them with endless requests for attention and resources. Their every move will be second-guessed by the process-obsessed Washington press corps and other self-anointed “Beltway insiders.” And top Democratic Party supporters are counting on a national electoral backlash against Mr. Bush–meaning that anything less than a sweeping victory in the midterm elections will be viewed as a disaster.
“In some ways, this is a lot more complicated than what we’ve done in the past,” Mr. Wolfson said in an interview. “New York is a big state, but the United States is a big and extremely diverse country.”
“You might say we’re sort of gluttons for punishment,” added Mr. Weiner.
Much of the punishment Mr. Weiner had in mind was inflicted when the two men worked together on the Clinton campaign. At the time, they were the Scooby and Scrappy of Democratic politics: Mr. Wolfson, the stocky campaign spokesman, and Mr. Weiner, the campaign’s more diminutive chief researcher, spent 18 hours a day together in the Hillary war room, sitting face to face just five feet apart, watching televisions over each other’s shoulders as they chattered into phones and bickered over the message and strategy of the day.
Thanks to their success in that race, the two men were awarded with a promotion of sorts; each now occupies a corner office on the second floor of Democratic National Committee headquarters (where they can argue via e-mail and speakerphone). But with their increased stature comes a number of daunting new challenges, leading to the conclusion that orchestrating a Congressional coup may prove somewhat more difficult than carrying a sitting First Lady to victory over a little-known Congressman from Long Island.
“In many ways, it’s really a no-win situation,” said Tom King, a media consultant who has done work for the DCCC. “They’re up against a very well-oiled, well-funded machine on the Republican side. And for each move they make, they will be answering to every single Democratic Congressperson. You’re never right; you’re always second-guessed. It’s really a thankless job.”
The backbiting and complaining began only weeks after Ms. Lowey recruited Mr. Wolfson–her onetime chief of staff–and Mr. Weiner for their current positions. Mr. Wolfson commands a staff of 65; Mr. Weiner runs the strategic meetings. Democrats privately griped that the New Yorkers weren’t prepared for the national stage, that they weren’t doing enough to prepare Democratic candidates to run against Republican incumbents. (This year is also one in which the Congressional districts are being redrawn, making preparations more difficult than usual.)
The criticism from observers of all political stripes intensified last month when Messrs. Weiner and Wolfson flubbed their first real trial, in which Randy Forbes, a conservative Republican, edged out L. Louise Lucas, a black female Democrat, in a closely watched special election in Virginia that was widely viewed as a referendum on the Bush administration.
“That race was their first big test, and they got beat like red-headed stepchildren,” said Republican consultant Rick Wilson, who faced off against Mr. Wolfson and Mr. Weiner as a key strategist in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s aborted Senate bid against Mrs. Clinton.
“These guys are trying to use a model down here that comes from parochial, New York-style politics,” Mr. Wilson said. “They’re Northeastern liberals. To think that they can apply that Hillary Clinton war-room stuff to the kinds of races you’ll see in the South and West defies logic.”
Happily for them, Mr. Wolfson and Mr. Weiner are used to this sort of abuse. Mr. Wolfson absorbed an almost inhuman amount of vitriol last year as Mrs. Clinton’s tight-lipped and sometimes acerbic communications director. (It continues: Gail Sheehy, whose unauthorized biography of Mrs. Clinton was dismantled on national television by Mr. Wolfson, remains sufficiently ill-disposed towards him to have likened him in a recent article to “the Garment District salesman who yells at you when you walk in to buy a suit.”)
Mr. Wolfson also served as the designated heavy in another acrimonious Senate campaign: He was Charles Schumer’s communications director in his 1998 victory over Alfonse D’Amato. In both contests, he frustrated political reporters with his haughty inscrutability, while torturing the opposition with his devastating rhetorical counterpunches.
Mr. Weiner, for his part, worked under James Carville during the Kenneth Starr investigations, and helped develop the daily message for the Clinton-Gore administration during a stint at the White House research department. He also thrived in perhaps the only media market nastier than New York, seeing action as a mercenary for Ehud Barak when he unseated Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister of Israel in 1999. Mr. Weiner is known in Democratic political circles as one of the quickest and most aggressive data-hounds in the business.
During the intense home stretch of Mrs. Clinton’s Senate campaign, colleagues recall, Mr. Wolfson and Mr. Weiner remained calm enough to carry on a kind of gallows-humor commentary.
“It was a little bit like M*A*S*H , with Howard in the role of Hawkeye Pierce,” said Bill de Blasio, who was Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager. “There was all this very serious stuff happening all around, but these guys just carried on this running banter that made it all bearable for everyone else. We would use some tactic and would be waiting for a response from the Lazio campaign, and Howard and Glen would make it into a running joke about how long it would take those guys to figure it out.”
Mrs. Clinton was similarly impressed. “I can’t think of two better people to be leading the Democrats to victory in 2002,” she said, in a statement e-mailed to The Observer . “I know that I couldn’t have won without them. Howard and Glen have extraordinary political talents.”
They will need those talents if they are to avoid the fate of their predecessors at the DCCC, who burned through a record $94 million in 2000 to win one seat. Mr. Wolfson will be responsible for doling out funds that are expected to exceed $100 million. Ms. Lowey, who coordinates fund-raising, is already on pace to shatter the fund-raising records of Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, the previous chairman. Mr. Weiner, meanwhile, will likely have to concoct strategy for some 100 competitive races across the country next year.
“This is as big a challenge as I’ve ever faced,” Mr. Weiner conceded. “But I guess that’s when you can show what you’re worth. High-pressure situations are where you want to be.”
Although Mr. Wolfson and Mr. Weiner won’t say so publicly, they narrowly averted disaster recently when campaign-finance reform collapsed in Congress. Nearly half of the money they expect to have at their disposal will be so-called soft money, which would have been made illegal under the proposed legislation. Their ability to influence races flows from the campaign cash they can dole out to candidates across the country.
In the first test-run of their new operation, the special election in Virginia between Ms. Lucas and Mr. Forbes, Mr. Wolfson and Mr. Weiner served notice that they intended to involve themselves aggressively in individual Congressional contests. Mr. Wolfson poured money into the race, with outlays that nearly doubled the Republicans’ in the campaign’s early days, and helped build a machine to boost Democratic turnout. Mr. Weiner mercilessly hounded Mr. Forbes, scrutinizing his every comment for inconsistencies and highlighting his weaknesses with paid political ads.
Ms. Lucas eventually lost by four percentage points, despite an unusually large turnout among the third of the district’s voters who were black. Mr. Wolfson said that he has been up at night since then wondering what they could have done differently.
But local Democrats were impressed with the New Yorkers’ effort. “Every time my cell phone would ring at all hours, I’d figure it was Glen,” said Virginia Democratic Party executive director Alan Moore. “They really showed that they were pros. I’m not sure they could have done much differently.”
“It was dawn till dusk with them, and dusk kept getting later,” added Mr. King, the former media consultant for the DCCC who also worked on the Lucas campaign.
Their counterparts in the G.O.P. were less charitable in their assessment. “They should have taken that seat in a walk,” said Mr. Wilson, who worked for the Republican National Committee. “I think it’s an indication of the weakness of the team that they put together. The Republicans have an incredibly robust national campaign operation already in place. These guys were only effective when they had the star power of Hillary, and when they had Rick Lazio to kick around.”
Mr. Wolfson and Mr. Weiner maintain that they never intended to subject themselves to this sort of thing so soon after the Clinton race. They had talked seriously of opening up a New York consulting firm together. But then Ms. Lowey convinced Mr. Wolfson to join her in Washington.
“When I heard that Howard took the job, I knew I was in trouble,” Mr. Weiner joked. “I got the call immediately.”
If both men regard the Clinton race as a career highlight, they regard their new assignment as something more akin to a jihad.
“This is definitely a holy grail we’re after,” said Mr. Wolfson. “This is something we have to be able to win, no matter what.”