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As A Powerful Figure In Washington, John Larson Could Have His Eyes Set On Bigger Things

Daniela Altimari

April 05, 2010

U.S. Rep. John B. Larson touched on all the standard talking points during a weekday visit to a Southington senior center, one of several stops on his tour to sell the health care overhaul to the denizens of his Congressional district.

The 30 or so people sitting on folding metal chairs listened patiently as Larson touted many of the benefits the measure will bring. He peppered his polemic with references to his elderly mother, who is dealing with multiple sclerosis, congestive heart failure and early-stage dementia; and his daughter, who will now have medical coverage when she enrolls in graduate school.

But some in the audience remained unswayed.

"I'm absolutely disgusted," a woman in the front row announced after Larson finished.

She and others wanted to talk about process specifically the process by which the health care bill became law.

Few in Washington were more integral to the process than Larson, leader of the Democratic caucus and one of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's top lieutenants. However the health care overhaul ultimately plays with the public, being seen as one of its handmaidens is an unambiguous plus within the Democratic Party, said Thomas E. Mann, a Congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Mann described Larson as "a serious player." While Pelosi did much of the negotiating on the health care bill, Mann said, "you'll notice that she always had him around her."

He added, "There is at least a sense he might well have opportunity to move in the speaker's chair himself."

Credit Larson's age as much as his political acumen: Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Majority Whip James Clyburn are all close to, or over, 70; Larson is 61. While there are younger up-and-comers on the House Democratic leadership track notably Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Xavier Becerra of California and Pelosi shows no sign of wanting to quit, "it's fair to say [Larson's] position is strong," Mann said. "To the extent that vacancies develop, he's got a good chance of moving up."

Is He Still An Everyman?

Larson has a thick head of Kennedyesque hair, a booming voice and a folksy manner honed over countless lunches at Augie & Ray's, the unpretentious East Hartford eatery popular with cops and pols. He likes to compare the sharp partisanship dividing Congress to the Yankee- Red Sox rivalry that divides Connecticut.

But in this case, the affable Everyman who loves baseball and ham and egg sandwiches happens to be one of the most powerful men in Congress.

His Republican critics say he has become increasingly distant from the concerns of the 1st District, a semi-circle in the center of the state that encompasses metro Hartford and reaches from Manchester to Bristol to Torrington.

"The congressman's lack of interest in the district by virtue of his leadership role is going to hurt him," state GOP Chairman Chris Healy predicted.

Healy says Larson and Pelosi tried to demonize the insurance industry during the health care debate, a potential political liability for the man who represents the Insurance Capital.

Republicans also intend to paint Larson as a player who hobnobs with the powerful. Next weekend, the congressman is hosting a $5,000-a-person fundraiser in Napa Valley, a world away from Augie & Ray's.

"The days of John Larson traveling the country, filling his coffers so he can hand out checks to other people are long gone," Healy said.

Larson's spokesman, Paul Mounds, declined to respond to Healy's accusations.

In recent election cycles, Larson has barely had to mount a campaign. Republicans are sorely outnumbered in the district and have fielded a string of candidates who have been unable to topple the Democratic incumbent.

This time around, the GOP's hopes are pinned on Mark Zydanowicz, a political newcomer from West Hartford. In a moment of candor rare in politics, Zydanowicz told Steve Collins of the Bristol Press earlier last week that Larson is "almost insurmountable."

Healy is more optimistic. He believes the health care bill will haunt Larson and other Democrats come November.

Explaining Health Care Bill

Right now, Larson seems more focused on campaigning for public support of the health care overhaul than his own re-election, though surely the two are intertwined.

He returned from Washington in late March and went right to Connecticut Children's Medical Center, where a friendly crowd of doctors, hospital administrators and the father of a 7-year-old girl with cerebral palsy all came to celebrate the measure's passage. He spoke of the ways the health care overhaul would benefit children and the elderly. He said insurers would no longer be permitted to reject people with pre-existing medical conditions and talked about the millions of uninsured who will now receive coverage.

"This is an historic moment," Larson said after the applause. "Much has been accomplished, much needs to be done."

The message was largely the same at the Calendar House Senior Center in Southington, though the reaction was far less enthusiastic, at least from the handful of attendees who spoke during the Q&A after Larson's prepared remarks.

John Walker, 63, a lifelong Democrat, wanted to know if Larson had read the bill.

"Three times," the congressman responded.

At one point, an exchange between the two men grew heated. "You're wrong," said Larson, his face growing red. "You're buying all the points on talk radio."

Bob Whitney, a retired Realtor and registered Republican, wore a Boston Red Sox cap and carried a notebook where he had written down a series of questions to ask Larson. He wondered how the Democrats could push through a bill that he said a majority of Americans do not support.

Larson questioned his poll numbers and said that, when asked individually about parts of the health care bill, people overwhelmingly support it.

"I spend more time talking about death panels and that Medicare was going to be destroyed and that it's socialized medicine," Larson said. "There is no government takeover with this health care plan."

Afterward, Larson went over to chat with Whitney. "At least you're a Red Sox fan," the Congressman said before walking away.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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