WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives was in session, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s office was bustling on an afternoon in late September. The congressman from Maryland’s 8th District was rushing to the House floor so he could speak on the controversial terrorist detainee bill.
“Karen, I’ll call you,” he said over his shoulder to his chief of staff. “I’m going to move fast.”
By most accounts, Van Hollen, 47, of Kensington, has been moving fast his entire career.
After just two terms in Congress, he is co-chairman of the Democratic Party’s effort to help its congressional candidates defeat Republican incumbents. Since he himself defeated popular Republican Connie Morella in 2002 to represent the western half of Montgomery County and a slice of Prince George’s bordering Northeast Washington, he has furthered his reputation as a capable political climber and legislator, friends and colleagues said.
“He’s been a welcome addition to the Congress,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who works with Van Hollen as ranking member of the Committee on Government Reform. “He’s very bright, very able.”
Friends say Van Hollen is smart, a good listener and, above all, a hard worker. Delegate Richard S. Madaleno Jr., D-Montgomery, said Van Hollen is the type of guy who takes junkets to the Middle East, then as a Hill staffer, to visit Kurdish refugees, instead of the faux “fact-finding missions” some staffers took to play golf in Scotland.
Van Hollen also took night classes at Georgetown University Law Center while working on Capitol Hill and was made partner at a large Washington law firm the same year he was named vice-chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee in the Maryland Senate.
Even his spare time has always been a whirlwind. He and his wife, Katherine Van Hollen, are raising three children — Anna, 16, Nicholas, 14, and Alexander, 10. Van Hollen also used to coach youth soccer, which in Montgomery County “is a really big deal,” said longtime friend David Bushnell, 53, of Silver Spring.
Van Hollen is now on the board of directors of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Washington and a member of the Congressional Soccer Caucus, which promotes soccer and tries to involve at-risk youth in the sport.
Born in Pakistan to a father in the U.S. Foreign Service and a mother in the State Department, Van Hollen lived in Turkey, Sri Lanka and India until he came to the United States for high school. Growing up immersed in different cultures and perspectives sparked his interest in foreign policy, he said.
“It gives you an appreciation for two things: one, America’s role in the world, and secondly, how people view the United States,” he said.
Aside from foreign policy, Van Hollen’s legislative record emphasizes education, something he attributes to having three children in Montgomery County Public Schools.
“Look, I think that education is critical to the success of this country,” he said. “So look, I think that we need to make sure that every student gets a good start.”
Starting out in his 20s as a legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Charles Mathias of Maryland, a moderate Republican, Van Hollen went on to be a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, an adviser to then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a Maryland delegate and then a state Senator before running for Congress. He has never lost a political race, and most think he isn’t about to start now.
“His constituents think he is doing a good job,” said state Sen. Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, whose constituents are represented by Van Hollen at the congressional level. “I’d be stunned if he weren’t re-elected.”
“I can’t imagine under what scenario he would lose re-election,” said Madaleno, who represents a district mostly overlapping Van Hollen’s.
“Overwhelmingly you hear nothing but great compliments about Chris. People appreciate how hard working he is, people appreciate the record he assembled in Annapolis and what he’s been able to do on Capitol Hill even as a junior member of the minority party.”
Those Capitol Hill accomplishments include leading the successful effort to close a loophole that let lenders pocket more than $1 billion designated for college students and passing an amendment that obstructed a Republican effort to privatize more government jobs.
Van Hollen’s successes are no surprise given his record in Annapolis, said Madaleno, who was on the staff of the Maryland House of Delegates Appropriations Committee when Van Hollen joined it in 1990.
“You want to find someone who can get a bill through, you go to Chris Van Hollen, because he works it hard, he takes time to understand it,” Madaleno said.
Van Hollen does have critics. When he gave up his state Senate seat to run for Congress, Kennedy clan primary opponent Mark K. Shriver and his supporters accused Van Hollen of having an outsized ego.
And a July 30 letter Van Hollen wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urging a cease-fire in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict angered some members of Montgomery County’s large Jewish community who perceived his position as anti-Israel.
“That has antagonized a great number of Jewish voters who are taking a look at (Jewish challenger Jeff Stein’s) campaign,” said Montgomery County Republican Party Chairman Tom Reinheimer.
Still, Van Hollen remains popular. When Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes announced his retirement more than a year ago, Van Hollen explored the idea of running for his seat, eventually nixing it.
But perhaps not permanently.
“Look,” he said, “you never know what’s going to happen.”