Last January, after a tsunami ravaged the Indian subcontinent, U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley, a Democrat who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, led a Congressional delegation to survey the wreckage in Sri Lanka. During the trip, recalled Representative Steve Israel, a Long Island Democrat, legislators stumbled upon an Israeli-run refugee camp and paid an unscheduled visit.
“They were having a sack race for these Sri Lankan children who had been orphaned only weeks before by the tsunami, and I made the mistake of kind of offhandedly saying to Joe, ‘I could beat you,’” Mr. Israel recounted. “And Joe—he’s a nice guy but also is competitive—took me up on my offer. So there we were, in the middle of Sri Lanka, surrounded by dozens of orphans, having a sack race. And he beat me bad.”
Built like a linebacker, Mr. Crowley, a 43-year-old Irish-American from Woodside, would make a formidable foe in most picnic games. But his spontaneous sack racing, said Mr. Israel, demonstrated more than just athletic prowess: It typified the gregarious, affable personality that has earned Mr. Crowley the affection of many of his colleagues in Congress.
Mr. Crowley will soon find out just how many. Over the past 10 months, he has been campaigning to become vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, bagging supporters like Mr. Israel. The post, the fourth-ranking office in the party’s caucus, was originally slated to open up next November, but it became open earlier after the caucus chairman, Robert Menendez, was appointed to succeed Governor-elect Jon Corzine as a U.S. Senator from New Jersey. House Democrats voted unanimously to replace Mr. Menendez with their current vice chairman, Representative James Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat. That created the vacancy which Mr. Crowley would like to fill.
A vote on the post is scheduled for Feb. 1, when Congress reconvenes from the holiday recess. With the finish line suddenly in sight, Mr. Crowley has taken a solid lead. And he will continue to campaign, he said on Dec. 19. He squeezed in some stump time even as the House was meeting into the wee hours on Sunday night to discuss $40 billion in proposed budget cuts.
“There was a lot of discussion, a lot of talks going on,” he said. “You know, people are around waiting for bills to come up, and we’re sitting around—that type of thing,” he said.
Though caucus members will vote by secret ballot, that hasn’t stopped Mr. Crowley and his two opponents—Representatives Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and John Larson of Connecticut—from waging energetic campaigns, touting their credentials and marshalling public pledges of support from their colleagues. So far, Mr. Crowley is leading the way with 63 pledges. His backers include all of his Democratic colleagues from New York and a majority of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 35 moderate to conservative Democrats. Meanwhile, Ms. Schakowsky has garnered 52 pledges and seems headed for a runoff with Mr. Crowley, while Mr. Larson is trailing, with 18 public pledges.
While ideology may play some role in the final outcome, observers of the race say that it’s more of a popularity contest, based on pals rather than policy.
“Anybody who ran for office as a student knows what that’s like,” laughed Amy Walter, who analyzes House elections for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “You know, pigeonholing kids in the cafeteria, making sure that you talk to all the sporty kids and the math kids.
“If it went purely on ideology,” she added, “then Schakowsky would be the favorite, because this is a majority liberal caucus.”
A Real Showman
Mr. Crowley has always been a crowd-pleaser. Before he arrived in Washington in 1998 as the handpicked successor of his mentor, former Congressman and current Queens County chairman Thomas Manton, he was a well-liked state legislator in Albany. He served there as a State Assemblyman for 12 years and was known for both his affable nature and his guitar chops in a legislative ensemble called the Budget Blues Boys. Now, say his colleagues, he’s counted among the more amiable members of Congress, apt to characterize floor debates with corresponding lyrics from the Who.
To the extent that ideology does play a role, the race resembles a minor referendum on diverging Democratic ideologies, with Mr. Crowley as a standard-bearer for the party’s more conservative pro-business faction.
Mr. Crowley, for example, was one of 73 Democrats who joined with Republicans to vote in favor of a controversial bankruptcy bill last spring. The bill, which limits debt relief and was favored by the financial-services industry, marked the broadest overhaul of American bankruptcy code in more than 25 years. Its passage pointed up a deep fissure in the House Democratic leadership, with Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a close ally of Mr. Crowley, leading support for the bill, which was passionately opposed by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, a close ally of Ms. Schakowsky. Arguing against the bill on the floor of the House, Ms. Pelosi said it “would bind hardworking and honest Americans to credit-card companies and other lenders as modern-day indentured servants.”
Viewed through that lens, the race for vice chair shapes up as a bruising battle of surrogates, a grudge match pitting the moderate Hoyer-Crowley Democrats against their more liberal (read: Pelosi-Schakowsky) brethren.
But not everyone is buying those ideological implications.
“We’re a party of strong individuals and we have disagreements in different areas, but overall I feel he’ll be an outstanding leader for the Democratic caucus, for New York and for the country,” asserted Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who is supporting Mr. Crowley from the more liberal end of the Congressional spectrum. “I don’t think it’s fair to call him anyone’s surrogate. People say that, but I think he’s his own person.”
Mr. Crowley has been lauded as a powerful fund-raiser and was selected by Ms. Pelosi to serve as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Business Council. He bristles at attempts to label him as ideologically conservative.
“On the scale of things, if you take me out of New York City, I’m a very progressive person. Whether it’s on choice, or on gay rights or gun control, I’m in the mainstream of the Democratic Party,” he said.
In 1999, when Hillary Clinton attended a fund-raiser for Mr. Crowley at the Plaza hotel, abortion-rights activists and the Congressman’s political opponents berated the then First Lady, accusing her of selling out to support a candidate that they considered pro-life.
Mr. Crowley rejects the pro-life label. Although he voted in favor of a 2003 bill prohibiting late-term abortions, he said that he supports Roe v. Wade. “I think there’s been a real positive movement in the Congressman’s views over the past seven years,” said Chris McCannell, Mr. Crowley’s chief of staff, to which the Congressman added: “I’ve matured.”
The landscape of his district has also changed. When his predecessor, Mr. Manton, was in Congress, the district was mostly in Queens and included a sliver of the Bronx. In recent years, however, redistricting has mixed in a larger slice of the Bronx, stretching from Co-op City to the Botanical Gardens. The Bronx now comprises more than half of the district.
Though Mr. Crowley has fended off political primaries in the past, an increasingly varied constituency could complicate his efforts to lock down support for his leadership campaign. It’s been suggested that when Mr. Manton retires from his post as Queens County chairman, Mr. Crowley might attempt to succeed him in an effort to shore up his base and protect his future. Publicly at least, Mr. Crowley won’t speculate that far ahead, and he says that he expects his 72-year-old mentor to stick around for a while. For now, he’d rather limit his focus on the vote for vice chair in February, promoting himself as a team player who can work with a broad spectrum of legislators.
“Over the last seven years, what I’ve been working on—whether I’ve been doing it knowingly or just instinctively—has been as a uniter, as a person who can unite my district in many respects, but also here in D.C., bring people together,” he said.
And it’s not the first time he’s embraced that conciliatory role. Back in 1999, Mr. Crowley attended a bipartisan Congressional retreat in Hershey, Penn., which was aimed at restoring civility in the wake of Bill Clinton’s bitter impeachment trial. There, he hit a similar theme, albeit more bluntly. “I hope by the end of this weekend, I can lay a big Hershey’s kiss on a Republican,” the Congressman said. “Preferably a female.”