Why you should care
He could help decide if Donald Trump faces an opposing Senate in two years.
As Chris Van Hollen speaks, the machines of industry churn behind him. Four massive white cranes, the newest in port technology capable of handling cargo from behemoth neo-Panamax ships, lift what will become at least $50 billion worth of cargo passing through the Port of Baltimore this year. Those cranes bring with them a state-estimated 130,000 in direct jobs. Like at any port, a business boom on the water means good news inland, too: No other port in the nation processes more cars, tractors and bulldozers, all of which leave these seas and move to the rest of the East Coast and greater America.
The jobs aren’t just good for bumper stickers. Van Hollen, Maryland’s freshman senator, sees revitalizing the ports and other infrastructure projects as part of the solution to the poverty, unemployment and crime that have long jostled his state’s largest city. “Clearly, economic opportunity is an important part of the strategy,” Van Hollen tells OZY, just a few miles downstream from downtown Baltimore. Unfortunately, Van Hollen doesn’t see debates over infrastructure investment and job growth emerging from the U.S. Capitol. Against a background of near-daily controversies from D.C., Van Hollen, a cheery 58-year-old with still-rosy cheeks, is full of optimistic plugs for bipartisanship — let’s just “get everybody around the table,” he says. It’s part of his larger vision of the Democratic Party, at a time when party soul-searching seems to be at an all-time high. “We need a big table,” he says, “but we need to focus on kitchen-table issues.”
He’s the first Democratic senator in history to start his career in the party leadership.
With any other Senate newbie, that remark could be deemed inconsequential. But Van Hollen’s words carry weight beyond his rank. His job is to help Democrats win back the Senate in 2018 — no small task. He’s the first Democratic senator in history to start his career in the party leadership, hand-selected by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to chair the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. And following multiple closed-door negotiations with Schumer, Van Hollen parlayed that DSCC gig into a spot on the powerful, coveted Senate Committee on Appropriations — a post senators typically wait years to hold. “I’ve played a lot of poker in my life,” Van Hollen quips. His dual roles — the first as a national campaign advocate for his colleagues, the second as a state servant delivering the pork to Maryland pet projects, from the port to the Purple Line — poise to give him tremendous influence, says Stella Rouse, a University of Maryland political scientist and Van Hollen constituent. “He is a dealmaker; he’s got that cachet, not just with his own party,” she says. Call it the charm offensive, brazen from a man who’s barely been on the job three months.
Still, while titles have the potential to make Van Hollen a national name, the task of winning back the Senate will be immensely difficult. “The map is tough for Democrats,” Schumer admitted when passing the baton to Van Hollen. His colleagues will be defending 25 seats in 2018, and Republicans will be protecting just eight — only one in a state Donald Trump didn’t win. There are 11 competitive blue seats, eight of which typically back Republican presidents or are considered “purple” in federal elections. And at home, Republicans accuse Van Hollen of being more political than legislative as a lawmaker, with posts like the DSCC chairmanship serving as a launching pad within his own party rather than an accelerant for Maryland residents.
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It’s no accident Van Hollen is visiting the port today, and its surrounding neighborhood, Dundalk, a middle-class Baltimore burb. Much of the economic activity in this area relied on jobs from Bethlehem Steel, once the nation’s second-largest steel producer and biggest shipbuilder, before it collapsed in the early 2000s, taking with it more than 20,000 local jobs. It’s also home to one of the few Maryland stops Trump made during his populist charge up the polls. The billionaire went on to win 77 percent of the GOP primary vote in Dundalk and neighboring Essex, the most of any region in the state. While general election tallies for the area weren’t available, the Baltimore Sun credited it with limiting Hillary Clinton’s wide margin across greater Baltimore County in November.
“When you go to Baltimore it’s important to go to places in the inner city like Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray lived and died, but not far from there is Dundalk,” Van Hollen says. The area faces similar challenges of job loss and poor schools. “I see policy and politics as integrally connected,” Van Hollen adds. And here, the two are so tied: “Democrats have gotten into a bad habit of simply showing up where there are lots of Democrats — cities, and some of the suburbs. We have to do a much better job in the exurbs and the more rural areas.” The prescription applies to helping both Democrats and constituents.
What can a man who was born in Pakistan, and attended an international private school in India before returning stateside, tell the longshoremen he’s interviewing here in middle-class America?
Van Hollen, a worldly Harvard grad and Georgetown Law alumnus, hardly looks the part that would appeal to blue-collar sensibilities that feel left behind by modern liberalism. He’s far from down-home, coming from a foreign-service family: His mother worked as a State Department intelligence officer, his father a U.S. diplomat to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. What can a man who was born in Pakistan, and attended an international private school in India before returning stateside as a high school junior to Concord, Massachusetts, tell the longshoremen he’s interviewing here in middle-class America?
Surprisingly, a lot. Despite an undoubtedly privileged upbringing, Van Hollen spent two undergrad summers in Alaska, toiling on stools lined up against a conveyor belt, separating “junk fish” from shrimp. He hitchhiked to Clam Gulch (latest census population: 176) — “a gas station and a bar,” he says before joking, “all the necessities in life” — working odd-end jobs there, too, and honing his poker game. He settled as a philosophy major (his fourth reboot after flirtations with English, history and physics). Following in the footsteps of his organizing idols Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., he led a campus anti-apartheid effort urging Swarthmore College to divest from South African-tied businesses … and succeeded. When he became a legislative assistant for defense and foreign policy to Maryland Sen. Charles Mathias, a moderate Republican, following graduation, he witnessed firsthand the fruits of seemingly impossible opposition: the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which saw the U.S. impose tough sanctions against South Africa.
— Chris Van Hollen (@ChrisVanHollen) February 24, 2017
Van Hollen says that experience has informed his policymaking since, from the Maryland General Assembly where he led successful bills raising the tobacco tax, prohibiting drilling in the Chesapeake Bay and mandating gun trigger locks, to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he rose to become the fifth-highest Democrat in just four years while leading on energy and budgetary issues. Yes, he touts typical progressive views on cultural touchstones, with 100 percent ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. But he’s made his mark with a sort of economic manifest destiny, a belief that financial issues pervade all, and that work will continue from his perches on the agriculture, budget and appropriations Senate committees.
The Marylander has charted audacious plans, from the Disclose Act aimed at shuttering dark money in campaigns to an economic action plan that included a “paycheck bonus tax credit” of $1,000 to every worker. His cap-and-dividend carbon pricing plan, in which the nation’s largest polluters would have to buy permits at auction, would give the returns to every citizen with a social security number — it was called “elegant and effective” by the Washington Post, and similar proposals had been floated by Republicans like Sens. Susan Collins and Lindsey Graham, as well as conservative economist George P. Schultz. “We need to reward people who make money off of hard work, and not just people who make money off of money,” Van Hollen says.
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From his shimmering new office in the Hart Senate Office Building, still unadorned after a recent move up from the basement, Van Hollen lays out his operating philosophy for Democrats: Beyond resisting the “ugly parts” of the Trump agenda, which he says includes the immigration ban and eliminating the Affordable Care Act, they need to advance a vision. “Part of that is blowing the whistle on the fact Trump talks a populist game, but at the end of the day he’s delivering for his 1 percent.”
It’s here where the tug-and-pull personality of Van Hollen most shows, between truly liberal positions and yet a desire to find commonalities. He suggests a willingness to reform the ACA but not repeal it, to lead on the $1 trillion infrastructure investment Trump spoke about on the campaign and to consider some Republican financial efforts, including some variation of lowering taxes. Van Hollen “doesn’t appear ready to support corporate tax reform, which most fair-minded Democrats seem prepared to do,” says Maryland GOP chair Dirk Haire. For his part, Van Hollen says that’s a mischaracterization, citing a willingness to lessen part of the overseas corporate tax but also complaining about how Republicans “talk a good game about reducing the deficit but refuse to close a single tax break in order to do it.”
— Chris Van Hollen (@ChrisVanHollen) March 2, 2017
At his first address to Congress, Trump talked about how the U.S. has financed and built one global project after another, “but ignored the fates of our children in the inner cities.” Here, Van Hollen isn’t so far from Trump: Seeing the world caused him to, in his words, “hold up a mirror — and that showed we have a lot of work to do right here at home.” In India, Van Hollen saw people living — and dying — on the streets, which stoked his self-reflection. As a Peace Corps worker in a remote village in Sri Lanka, he recalls walking into a hut and seeing a portrait of John F. Kennedy, a “vivid example” of the positive reach of overseas diplomacy.
But while Trump espouses a return to American nativism, Van Hollen sees an opportunity to raise the light of a global beacon — a similar prognosis, but a separate prescription. For sure, his policies will seem Sisyphean in a Republican Senate, and the path to Democratic wins in 2018 seems riddled with potholes. But Van Hollen says he isn’t afraid of the challenge: “If you’re not pushing even at times when there seems no hope, then you’re never going to break down the door.”