Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher has several ways of telling the story of how she embarked upon her adventures in political life. All of them begin with the same dire predicament.
In 1995, a band of Democratic Party insiders went looking for someone to knock the blocks out from under Republican Bill Baker in California's 10th Congressional District, which covers eastern Alameda County and most of Contra Costa County; it encompasses the stretch of bedroom communities from Orinda to Walnut Creek, from Antioch to Danville. After redistricting in 1992, the mostly affluent, mostly suburban district had been carved out of three Democratic ones and shaped into the only district in the Bay Area where the Republicans had a slight edge in party registration.
The blustery Baker had been the first to inhabit the newly drawn seat in the US House of Representatives, and although his conservatism seemed to fit his constituents' economic leanings, his outspokenness against gun control and abortion rights had raised eyebrows and gorges. Baker was an unabashed Friend of Newt who supported school vouchers and had urged the government to scuttle the federal Department of Education. He had voted to cut school lunch programs and against the Brady Bill. The Democrats were appalled, but also scared. It was ten days before the filing date for the 1996 election and they were minus a candidate; the person they'd intended to support had dropped out of the running at the last minute. They started making phone calls.
Tauscher, a successful Tassajara Valley businesswoman, was not at home. In fact, she was visiting New York with her daughter Katherine, where the two of them were taking in the Christmas show at Rockefeller Center. Tauscher's political experience at that time was limited to backstage roles: she had cochaired the 1980 Democratic National Convention host committee in New York City, and held top leadership roles in Dianne Feinstein's 1992 and 1994 Senate campaigns, and Delaine Eastin's 1994 campaign for superintendent of California schools. When Tauscher returned to her hotel after the show that night, she had a barrage of messages. The calls were from Feinstein, a handful of Bay Area House members, and Judi Kanter, director of the San Francisco office of Emily's List, which raises funds to support female, pro-choice candidates. The messages said the party needed a candidate. They begged: Run, Ellen, run.
The various versions of the story diverge over what happened next. The more sedate and introspective conclusion goes as follows: Tauscher had previously been asked to run in 1994 and turned the offer down; this time, she remembers, her response was still, "No no no no no no. Not me." However, after talking the matter over with her then-husband, business owner William Tauscher, she changed her mind. "For a long time people like us who had been very blessed--to be the first in our families to go to college, to have business success, financial success, and healthy families--we had eschewed going into public office. We relegated it to other people, and then we became cynical and complained about their performance and what they did," she says, laughing gently. "If we didn't put up, we had to shut up. My former husband said he believed that I would be a very effective person in this job and that frankly, if [people like us] didn't start running, we deserved people like Bill Baker."
The shorter and somewhat punchier retelling of why she decided to run goes like this: "I stopped taking my medication on time."
In the five years since her arrival in Washington, DC, Tauscher has gone from behind-the-scenes supporter to a player who is increasingly in the spotlight. "Independent, effective moderates rock," she says when asked the secret of her success. You would find many in her party who agree with her. Tauscher is often showcased as a model for New Democrats, the moniker given to the Clintonesque moderates who have tried to expand the party's support by reaching toward the political center; Clinton himself even called her his "philosophical soul mate." Her combination of socially progressive and fiscally conservative policy positions is credited with her being able to wrest control of a district where only 41 percent of the voters are registered Democrats away from the Republicans not once, but three times. (Tauscher handily beat back Republican challengers in 1998 and 2000, despite heavy campaigning by the Republican Party's national machine, which came roaring back to reclaim its own.)
Moreover, it's a formula that some think is increasingly applicable to other parts of the country. Bipartisanship may be the buzzword of the new century, but in truth, both halves of the old two-party system are still scrapping for dominance the way they always have. In such an evenly divided Congress, control of the House and Senate hangs tenuously on the reshuffling of a few seats; it's a time in Congress when some members are openly waiting for their more elderly colleagues to die, or, in more gentlemanly fashion, trying to woo defectors into their camp. Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords sent shockwaves through the political establishment at the end of last month when he bolted the Republican Party, thereby rolling back their control of the Senate, but Democrats hoping to retake Congress can hardly expect more lucky breaks of this magnitude. The real fight to break the deadlock still lies in winning over voters, despite the fact that voter loyalty to the majority parties is steadily declining. Beltway wisdom says the Democrats and Republicans have already seized all the "safe" districts; the margin of victory is now dependent on the voting behavior of the few suburban swing districts--like California's 10th--that are still up for grabs.
Tauscher's win was a major coup for the Dems; in most analysts' opinions, the 10th district--formerly a political question mark--can be considered a safe Democratic district as long as Tauscher is still at the helm. She is pro-choice, pro-trade, pro-business, pro-environment, and pro-tax relief (within reason); she brags that she can bring both labor and management to the table. If that sounds like her modus operandi is to endorse everything, she will forcefully remind you that Americans are tired of a Democratic Party that always says "no," that people want a government that can provide compromises and alternatives. As the Democratic Party moves toward the center it moves toward her, and Tauscher has what the party wants: Wall Street business cred, an insider's perspective on big-ticket issues like technology, national defense, and the economy, and a rapidly growing district that encompasses two national laboratories, wealthy suburbs, and a slice of Silicon Valley.
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