Darcy Burner knew that prospective Democratic candidates sometimes left in tears after meeting Representative Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, who heads the party's efforts to recapture the House and was the one-man screening committee for recruits. Burner, an alumna of Harvard and Microsoft, didn't cry. But she found the wiry former Clinton Administration official as ruthless as any corporate chieftain she had known, as he went down a checklist of questions, including one at the top he had written to himself: Is she worth the investment of my time and the committee's money?
"Apparently, it didn't occur to him that I could read upside down," Burner recalls. Or maybe he didn't care. Either way, at the end of all his queries about polls and consultants and budgets, she asked him, "How are we doing on No. 1?"
"The jury is still out," Emanuel said with studied bluntness.
Burner, who wanted to run in a district that stretches from wealthy Seattle suburbs to farmland at the base of Mount Rainier, passed muster. Now the two are bonded on a historic adventure--the Democrats' increasingly promising quest to evict Republicans from the leadership suites they have occupied for the past dozen years. "This Microsoft mom is going to be part of us taking back the Congress," Emanuel said hoarsely at a rally in a Mercer Island, Wash., community center last week.
Equal parts coach, babysitter and disciplinarian, Emanuel, 46, has groomed Burner and 21 other varsity challengers--seven more than the number of seats that Democrats need to take control of the House. But Emanuel, a lifelong control freak, has a problem that could trip him at the finish line. Although he'll be the one taking the victory lap or the blame, it's not only his Democratic Party. His title is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC)--the "D triple C," as it is known. The national party chairman is Howard Dean, former presidential candidate and Vermont Governor, who has not exactly muted his unself-conscious liberalism in the job, even while Emanuel and his star pupils are trying hard to hug the middle. Emanuel even bought radio ads on Christian radio stations recently, perhaps partly as a stunt but also to remind Reagan Democrats that they used to be Democrats.
A constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage is scheduled for a vote in the Senate this week, and congressional Democrats are mostly downplaying the issue, saying the country has bigger problems to worry about. Dean, however, issued a proclamation saluting Pride Month for "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals" and lionizing the early gay advocates who stood up for themselves in June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn. On Friday and Saturday, gay-rights messages took up much of the valuable real estate of the Democratic National Committee's home page, which warned Republicans, "Don't Trample on LGBT Americans for Partisan Gain." "Wow!" exclaimed a shocked House Democratic official. "That's way off our message."