Maryland's freshman senator has a tough job | WYPR

Maryland's freshman senator has a tough job

Feb 22, 2017

Senator Chris Van Hollen

Maryland’s junior senator may be in his first year in that body, but he isn’t exactly the new kid on the block. Chris Van Hollen served seven terms in the House of Representatives, where he was picked by party leaders to run the Democratic election arm of the House. Now he has the same job in the Senate, which is unheard of for a freshman, in what looks to be a rough cycle for the party.

But Van Hollen says it’s a "positive assignment for the state of Maryland because I’m a new member of the Senate."

That means he’s "right away at the leadership table" and "part of the discussion about what direction the Democrats want to take, and that can only help Maryland," he said.

There are rumors swirling around Capitol Hill that no one else wanted to lead the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee during this cycle, in part because ten Democrats are up for reelection in states that President Donald Trump won last November.

But Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, says Van Hollen is perfect to help the party get through this rough patch.

"He’s an excellent fundraiser," Cummings said. "Excellent organizer. He knows how to - he’s an excellent recruiter."

But then there’s the simple math: Of Maryland’s ten federal lawmakers in Congress only one is a Republican – and that puts the state at a disadvantage according to that lone Republican, Congressman Andy Harris of the Eastern Shore.

Harris says he’s not sure what the state gets by having Van Hollen in that role.

"Well you know unfortunately I think that given that Republicans control the appropriations process, they control the presidency," Harris said. "I’m not sure it’s an advantage to the state to have one of its U.S. senators in such a highly partisan role."

But Van Hollen is respected by his peers. As the party continues its soul searching after Hillary Clinton’s surprising defeat at the hands of Donald Trump, Hawaii Democratic Senator Brian Schatz says Van Hollen will help bridge the ideological divide within the party.

"Chris is a pro," Schatz said. "So everybody feels very comfortable with him. He knows how to run a caucus operation, he understands the internal dynamics, he understands the strategic needs of the caucus, he understands the diversity of our caucus."

And even though he’s new to the upper chamber, Van Hollen was the right pick for the job, Schatz said.

"If you can manage the House Democratic caucus operation, then the Senate should come pretty naturally because there is just fewer of us," he explained.

Besides the political post, Van Hollen has been placed on four committees. On the Banking Committee he says he’ll be fighting GOP efforts to unwind Wall Street regulations. And he’s the first Maryland senator since 1922 to serve on the Agriculture Committee, which he says will be important for Baltimore because it controls childhood nutrition programs and food stamps.

But Van Hollen was also given a seat on the powerful Appropriations, or spending, Committee. That’s the committee "that decides how we’re going to make and allocate our federal investments to everything from the Port of Baltimore, to our infrastructure, to head start programs, so it’s a vital program for the Baltimore area," he said.

Van Hollen says even though he’s in the minority in Washington the year promises to be busy because Senate Democrats "are the only thing standing between the Donald Trump administration and a lot of bad things that could happen to the state of Maryland."

If Van Hollen can help his party recapture control of the Senate, his star power will grow. But if the Democrats fall short – the next four years promise to be long for them as their party tries to regain favor with the American people.