— Things seem to have a way of working out for Chris Coons.
After less than three years in the U.S. Senate, the Delaware Democrat is suddenly on his way to becoming a Washington player, with key committee assignments including a seat on the influential Appropriations Committee. He’s the first Delawarean to serve on the panel in 40 years.
The assignment puts him in the company of far more senior members and gives him a better opportunity to help Delaware and potentially himself with voters.
Such key positions don’t come easily in Washington. Some say it shows he’s being rewarded for playing an insider’s game, serving as a “rubber stamp” for his party. Others say he earned it because of his reputation as a workhorse and relationships that he’s developed with Senate leaders..
“I think he’s done a lot of things to position himself to get the seat, like being a great caucus member, working hard, showing his colleagues he’s a team player and he’s a really effective communicator,” said Jonathan Jones, a former chief of staff for Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who now lobbies for Delaware.
Charlie Copeland, chairman of the Delaware State Republican Party, has a different opinion.
“Chris obviously keeps his ear low to the ground and knows whose nest he needs to feather,” he said. “In my opinion, the jury is out on whether that helps Delaware.”
Often, plum assignments go to members who are vulnerable in their states, but Jones said that’s not the case with Coons.
He’s well liked by party leaders and has been a good spokesman for the caucus, whether the subject is marriage equality or other issues before the Supreme Court.
“They want him to succeed,” Jones said. “They want him to become a more prominent member of the caucus. You tend to bestow on people like that better committee assignments if you can.”The committee seat isn’t the gift that it once was. In 2011, members agreed to do away with pet projects called earmarks, removing a key perk of a seat on the committee.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., took over the chairmanship of the committee this year – after two other members declined it.
Even Coons said the position would present “tough decisions” on what to cut. “Because going forward, federal spending is going to have to be more about what we cut than what we increase,” he said.
Coons’ new position is still significant, said Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank. Decisions on how federal dollars are spent are even more important now during this period of austerity.
“It’s a big deal for the state, but more than that, it’s a big deal just in terms of your ability to influence things,” he said.
The seat can also help Coons with voters in a way his other committee assignments – Judiciary, Foreign Relations and Budget – can’t, allowing him to potentially make an impact on the state’s schools, health care system, local communities and transportation system, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the Cook Political Report.
The former New Castle County executive has come a long way in less than three years. He was widely expected to be a sacrificial lamb in a general election against former governor and nine-term Republican congressman Mike Castle until Delaware GOP primary voters gave Coons tea party candidate Christine O’Donnell as an opponent.
It was a lucky turn for Coons, whose win over O’Donnell stood out during the year of the tea party wave. Early on, he caught the attention of Democratic senators, many of whom contributed to his campaign.
Coons never expected to get early traction in the Senate when he was elected to serve the four remaining years of Vice President Joe Biden’s Senate term. It’s hard to make a meaningful impact in the Senate, especially for lawmakers low on the seniority ladder when clout is key.
“In my third year, I’d say I’m pleasantly surprised at how much progress I’m able to make simply by listening, showing up early, staying late, doing my homework and persistently reaching across the aisle,” he said.
A graduate of both Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School, Coons at 49 still does his homework.
In preparation for his first time presiding over the Senate – a typical chore for freshmen – he read Senate rules, attended a briefing with the Senate parliamentarian, read each senator’s biography and even studied the Senate seating chart.
In a Congress plagued by partisanship, Coons said he has worked hard to build relationships with Republicans through prayer breakfasts, travel and dinners.
He attributed some of his progress to partnerships with Republican senators such as Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who helped Coons insert an education provision into the Senate-passed immigration reform bill.
The provision would provide grants for schools to develop Facebook-inspired, Web-based accounts that monitor a student’s readiness for higher education.
Relationships with key members of his own party have been helpful, too.
Coons has known Mikulski since 1994, when he worked for the national I Have a Dream Foundation and ran a national AmeriCorps program, a priority for Mikulski. In the Senate, they’ve worked together on issues.
He has also worked closely with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, who also serves on appropriations. He is a leading co-sponsor of Leahy’s bill to reauthorize a bulletproof vest grant program – one that helped save the lives of two officers who were shot in February at the New Castle County Courthouse.
Leahy said he recommended Coons for the Appropriations Committee seat because “he’s one of the hardest-working senators I’ve met – and conscientious.”
Coons’ time in the Senate has come with some disappointments. He wanted to serve on the Banking Committee but that didn’t happen. In June, he was ready to take the lead on a high-profile voting rights bill, but Leahy said the full committee would handle it.
Coons also got big-footed a couple of times on the Foreign Relations Committee when he and then-Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, now the secretary of state, shared an interest in the same issue.
“You can grit your teeth and say, ‘But I worked for a month to prepare this hearing on Mali or Sudan or wildlife conservation,’ ” Coons said. “Or, you could smile and say, ‘The full committee chairman is interested in the topic that I care about and wants to advance it, and as a committee chair, has more of an ability to move something.’ ”
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who was sworn in with Coons, once said he was told to “dream on” regarding such a position, according to one news account. But Coons is a different member from Manchin, who last year voted most often against the majority of his party while Coons was a loyal party vote 95 percent of the time, according to a Congressional Quarterly vote analysis.
Coons’ Blue Hen Political Action Committee contributed $206,250 to other campaign committees during the last election cycle.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the majority whip, said “a little bit of humility” earns new members points. Durbin chairs a civil rights panel, and he was grateful recently when Coons called first before speaking out on the need for a robust Voting Rights Act.
“It isn’t lost on other members when you’re respectful of the fact that some have seniority, and he has been,” Durbin said. “He’s going to do very well.”
What comes next
At the moment, Coons has no challenger for 2014. O’Donnell, who declined to be interviewed, hasn’t said whether she’ll run again.
Her former campaign manager Matt Moran faulted Coons for having “neither the courage or conviction” to oppose a compromise in January to avoid the massive simultaneous spending cuts and tax increases known as the “fiscal cliff.” He also criticized Coons for not supporting a balanced-budget constitutional amendment.
“He has done exactly what we thought he would when he went to Washington, and that is be a rubber stamp for the Democrat ultraliberal agenda,” Moran said.
Coons has been sending out campaign emails warning that right-wing Super PACs are spending tens of millions to take over the Senate and that his seat isn’t safe.
Steve Grossman, a local Republican operative who worked on O’Donnell’s 2010 campaign, said Coons might have to answer questions in 2014 about his role as county executive in a controversial redevelopment project at Del. 141 and Lancaster Pike in Greenville. The County Council’s decision to rezone a portion of the Barley Mill Plaza office complex for commercial use – a compromise Coons helped craft – has been a source of community conflict and legal battles and was recently invalidated by Delaware’s Chancery Court.
However, Grossman said there’s nothing Coons has done as a U.S. senator that he could pinpoint and say, “This is horrible.”
“Obviously, he’s not the conservative member of the U.S. Senate that I would prefer, but again, I’m impressed that he got on Appropriations and how he pulled that off as a freshman,” Grossman said. “I think that’s good for Delaware, whether you like his politics or not.”