Capuano: A Washington Insider, Unknown At Home
WASHINGTON — MIKE CAPUANO HAS JUST LEFT A DEMOCRATIC CAUCUS on health care in the new underground Capitol Visitors’ Center. Most members of Congress walk the corridors back to their offices, but Capuano takes advantage of the Washington weather, much balmier than Boston’s this time of year, by going outside.
Someone calls, “Senator!” from a limousine.
Along my walk with him, Capuano gets several greetings like this from colleagues — Democratic and Republican — who wish him well in his Senate race. He’s clearly well known on Capitol Hill. In fact, the speaker of the House, Democrat Nancy Pelosi, picked him to strengthen ethical rules for members of Congress.
Meredith McGehee, the policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, said Pelosi picked Capuano “because she trusted him to be able to balance the pressures internally and the pressures from outside groups like us who wanted strong ethics.”
McGehee tried to persuade Capuano to put more teeth into ethics reform. She wanted him to give more power to investigators looking into ethics violations by members of Congress, specifically the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence.
But Capuano resisted because he thought that would never fly with members of Congress.
“He is one very tough guy,” McGehee said.
THAT TOUGHNESS HAS WORKED WELL for his constituents. He has won federal dollars for projects such as medical research in his district, which includes parts of Boston and all of Chelsea, Somerville and Cambridge. In one case, he managed to get money for research into ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Carol Hamilton, the director of government affairs at the ALS Therapy Institute, was impressed with Capuano’s dogged determination to secure the funds. “Through his office over the course of the next couple of years, he led us to key players in committees to familiarize the rest of the hill,” Hamilton said.
Returning veterans have twice the rate of ALS as the general population, so Capuano decided to go where the money was for the research: to the Pentagon. Hamilton admired how Capuano was able to work the system.
“It’s almost like working with a smiling bulldog,” Hamilton said. “Although he won’t smile if he’s not happy, which you really appreciate when you’re working with someone whose honesty you really need. It is a reliable office. If Capuano or his staffers tell you they’re going to do something, they will do it. ”
Capuano himself said his staff is so successful in part because they’re so experienced.
“I’ve been very lucky that most of my staff is probably the longest-serving staff in Congress for a member,” he said. ” I don’t know that — there’s no place you can measure that — but the average staffer in D.C. lasts 18 months, and everybody knows it. ”
THE DILEMMA FOR CAPUANO is that he is well known in Washington, but he is still a relative unknown in most of Massachusetts, and there are only nine weeks to go to the Democratic primary.
As the sun sets over Capitol Hill, he walks from his last caucus of the day to a town house a few blocks away. There, his campaign robocalls voters across Massachusetts. If they want to ask him a question, they stay on the line. For two hours, he talks to voters.
One caller, Melissa, told Capuano that she doesn’t know anything about him, then asks him why the federal stimulus has not created more construction jobs in Massachusetts. “It really is one of the main reasons why I would like to serve in the Senate, and the stimulus is a classic example,” Capuano said. “For me, the thing that I pushed hardest for is to create more construction jobs.”
When Capuano is not in Washington making calls, he’s in Massachusetts meeting voters in person. At the Nashoba Brook Bakery in Concord, he took digs at his opponents’ lack of experience in Washington.
“I’m not running for philanthropist. I’m not running for prosecutor,” he said. “They don’t let you get elected to be multimillionaire. I’m running for United States Senate. That’s the job that you should be looking for the qualifications for.”
He’s not afraid of being seen as a Washington insider. In fact, he tells the crowd of about 70 people, that’s exactly what they should be looking for in a senator.
“Bringing home the bacon,” he said. “I know that’s a tough term. Some people never want to hear that. Well, guess what? Ted Kennedy did it for years — proudly, rightly. I think if we don’t replace him with somebody who knows how to do it, this state will suffer.”
Capuano wants people to vote for him because he can bring money to the state, but he also wants them to vote for him because of what he believes.
“I voted against the Iraq war, ” he said. “On health care, I’m for a strong public option because of competition. I have been a supporter of Cape Wind from day one. I do not agree with term limits. If we had term limits, Ted Kennedy would never have become the greatest senator in the history of this country.”
Capuano also talked about the aspect of campaigning he dislikes the most.
“See these two phones?” he asked the audience. “I got another one in my pocket. You know what they’re for? This one is for incoming fundraising calls. This one is for outgoing fundraising calls. This one is for government calls. You think I like walking around with three cell phones? ”
Capuano said it’s OK with him if, in the race for the Senate, he’s behind in money and in the polls. He’s used to being the underdog. In 1998, when he first ran for Congress, there were 10 candidates. The former mayor of Boston, Ray Flynn, was the favorite. The early polls showed Capuano a distant second. But he won.