The Hardest Job in Washington

By Corn, David | Mother Jones, July/August 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Hardest Job in Washington

Corn, David, Mother Jones


How would you like to be in charge of holding Congress for the Democrats?

The office might be that of a regional sales director for a midsize company-a modest space, adorned by little more than family photos, a "Fightin' Phillies" banner, and a shelf of binders bearing labels like "Northeast" and "Midwest." Four blocks from the Capitol, it has a view not of Washington's grand buildings, but of an elevated highway. Yet this room is the command center for a titanic fight that could determine the future of the nation. It's the office of Jon Vogel, the man tasked with one of the toughest jobs in politics: stopping what appears to be a tidal wave heading toward Congress.

Vogel, 35, is the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a.ka. "D-Trip" (even "D-Triple C" is now passé), the party unit in charge of raising money and providing other support for House races. It's a tall order: Since Abraham Lincoln, the party of a first-term president has always lost House seats in the midterm election, with two exceptions-the year after fdr was inaugurated during the Great Depression, and the year after 9/11. If the pattern holds true this year, Republicans might ride popular discontent, Tea Party anger, and sky-high unemployment to regain control of the House. Vogel's job is to stop that from happening.

The public face of the D-Trip is Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), an ebullient congressman from the DC suburbs. Vogel stays behind the scenes running the operations: fundraising, candidate recruitment, message development, media strategies. (His counterpart is Guy Harrison, the 38-year-old tobacco-chewing executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.)

Vogel has been a professional Democrat for most of his adult life. He grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, the son of a professor and a psychologist. In college, he interned for Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY.) and ran his own cardetailing business before taking a job with the dccc's fundraising department.

Vogel's early campaigns were toughin one of them, he worked for Michael Forbes, a Long Island congressman who in 1999 bolted the Republican Party. To help Forbes get over his negatives with Democrats-he'd voted for Bill Clinton's impeachment- Vogel organized a Manhattan fundraiser where Clinton told a roomful of donors that if he could forgive Forbes, so could they. Forbes lost the primary by just 35 votes, but Vogel went on to raise money for Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and worked for him on the Hill. He returned to the Dece under Rahm Emanuel for the 2006 campaign cycle.

Asked if he has any tales to tell about working with Emanuel, a time he calls "extremely stressful and extremely rewarding," Vogel quips, "There are so many horrible ones-but I'm not trying to share." Actually, Vogel got on well with Emanuel, says John Lapp, who ran the dccc's independent expenditures program, because Vogel "knows how to hustle and how to take a punch." The key lesson he learned from Emanuel, Vogel recalls, is that "it is better to make a mistake of commission than omission. Always move the ball down the field."

"Jon was tenacious and annoying," recalls Brian Wolff, then Emanuel's deputy. "He fought for his candidates like I've never seen... Is he fun? No. But he's focused. He's not someone to shoot the shit with." One word that often comes up when past colleagues describe Vogel is "intense." (Outside politics, Vogel's passions include rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles and 5:45 a.m. workouts.)

In 2006, Vogel's tenacity paid off when the Democrats picked up 30 House seats and regained the majority they had lost to Newt Gingrich in 1994. Thirteen of those seats were in the regions Vogel was responsible for-the Northeast and Florid a- and they included races that hadn't even been "on the map," according to Lapp. Vogel had helped Emanuel practically eradicate an endangered species: the Northeastern Republican moderate.

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