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Van Hollen cuts his own path in race for Senate

Chris Van Hollen was in his late 20s when he found himself on the border between Iraq and Turkey, standing on a desolate dirt road in the mountains within firing range of soldiers loyal to Saddam Hussein.

Chris Van Hollen was in his late 20s when he found himself on the border between Iraq and Turkey, standing on a desolate dirt road in the mountains within firing range of soldiers loyal to Saddam Hussein.

An aide to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time, Van Hollen was documenting Iraq's use of chemical weapons during its war with Iran. He was, in other words, collecting evidence against the same military he suddenly had come face to face with in the country's rugged highlands.

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"These were people who had just been a part of operations to commit genocide, which we were documenting," Peter Galbraith, the former ambassador to Croatia who led the 1988 effort, said of the soldiers.

Through an interpreter, Van Hollen advised the soldiers to stay on their side of the road — the Iraq side. The men exchanged a few words, Galbraith said, and the soldiers went on their way.

In one form or another, Van Hollen has been engaged in high-level negotiations ever since.

The 57-year-old Montgomery County man is running for Maryland's open Senate seat on the argument that he is best suited to use those skills to carry on the legacy of retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

That day on the border, Galbraith said, "Chris was the picture of calm. Anything else could have turned out badly."

Now in his seventh term in the House of Representatives, and the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Chris Van Hollen has won praise from lawmakers in both parties for his work ethic and ability to maneuver with dignity in a polarized Washington. He is running for Maryland's open Senate seat.
Now in his seventh term in the House of Representatives, and the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Chris Van Hollen has won praise from lawmakers in both parties for his work ethic and ability to maneuver with dignity in a polarized Washington. He is running for Maryland's open Senate seat. (Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Now in his seventh term in the House of Representatives, and the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Van Hollen has won praise from lawmakers in both parties for his work ethic and ability to maneuver with dignity in a polarized Washington.

That's part of the reason why he won an early endorsement from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid before the Democratic primary fully got underway. In congressional meetings, Reid said, he had observed that Van Hollen was "not a big talker" — but when called on to speak, he knew his material.

"Why should I wait around?" to make an endorsement, the Nevada Democrat said. "He's been one of the most powerful House members, and he's been a person who is so good on the issues."

Mikulski agreed.

"He wants to be an advocate for Maryland," she said. "One of the things I like about Chris is he goes to work on the big picture, but he also has a very sound reputation for constituent services."

Van Hollen, a married father of three who lives in Kensington, emerged from a bruising primary against fellow Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County to win the Democratic nomination in April.

Edwards cast Van Hollen as an establishment figure out of touch with voters. Despite national interest in the race, the outcome wasn't close: Van Hollen won by more than 14 points.

In a state where Democrats enjoy a 2-1 advantage in voter registration over Republicans, he has run a quieter campaign for the general election. Though he mentions his Republican opponent, Del. Kathy Szeliga, he is far more likely to focus his rhetoric on GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

Van Hollen was born in Karachi, Pakistan. His father, a Baltimore native, served as a foreign service officer and later an ambassador to Sri Lanka in the 1970s. His mother was an intelligence analyst who worked for the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.

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The congressman's great-grandfather, George Henry Van Hollen, owned Atlantic Packing Co., a seafood wholesale firm in Baltimore.

A graduate of Swarthmore College with degrees in public policy from Harvard University and law from Georgetown University, Van Hollen served as an aide to Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias and to Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

He won election to the House of Delegates in 1990 and, four years later, defeated state Sen. Patricia R. Sher, a mentor and one-time ally, for a seat in the upper chamber.

Sher, who died in 2001, once told The Washington Post that Van Hollen's decision to challenge her felt "like one of my sons has kicked me in the mouth with a boot."

Van Hollen was elected to Congress in 2002 and became an ally of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Eight years later, he was named the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, a position that thrust him into the middle of partisan debates over government spending and budget deficits.

He was chosen for several high-profile efforts in which lawmakers from both parties tried — without much success — to find agreements to address seemingly intractable fiscal issues.

"He's a straight shooter," said Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican who served with Van Hollen on the 2011 supercommittee. "He's an honest broker to deal with."

Throughout a quarter-century in public office, Van Hollen has cultivated an image of caution while taking big risks. Serving on the supercommittee, for instance, meant having to carefully explain his position on entitlements while negotiations were underway. Edwards used some of his comments from that time to question the strength of his support for Social Security, an attack that Van Hollen was forced to address throughout the primary campaign.

Running for Senate is also a risk. Not only does it mean giving up a safe congressional seat but also forgoing an opportunity to rise in House leadership ranks.

Asked about the risk involved with joining the supercommittee, Van Hollen said he was not focused on it at the time.

"I would have done it no matter what," he said. "I don't see why people get involved in public life if they don't want to get stuff done, if they're afraid of every political shadow."

Van Hollen is far more comfortable talking about the solvency of Social Security than his personal life. When Szeliga launches into discussions at candidate forums about humble early jobs as a maid and dishwasher, Van Hollen doesn't respond by noting the summers he spent in Alaska filleting salmon and driving a forklift.

Like Szeliga, he learned to ride a motorcycle in his 20s. But it is difficult to picture him riding one in a campaign ad now, as she has done.

Van Hollen met his wife, Katherine, at Harvard.

A home in the Vermont woods has served as a family retreat since Van Hollen was young. The place had no electricity when he was growing up. And while it has been modernized, Van Hollen says with a certain pride that there is still no cell service.

"No one's really allowed to call him," a former staffer said of the second home. "There's allegedly a phone, but nobody has the number."

Cecilia Van Hollen, an anthropologist at Syracuse University, said her older brother still has the sense of adventure that led him to Turkey nearly 30 years ago. She remembers Van Hollen announcing to the family, at age 12, that he was planning to spend a few days "living off the land."

"He has always, since he was little, made a point of just going off trail," she said. "He enjoys getting lost and finding his way back, late at night, in the middle of a rainstorm."

There has been less time lately for walks in the woods.

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When former staff members tell stories about Van Hollen, they are more likely to involve briefing binders than trail mix. During the height of the 2011 fiscal fights, the congressman asked for a printout of the annual Medicare trustees report, hundreds of pages dense with information.

Aides assumed it would sit on his desk, at least for a while.

They were surprised when it came back days later with questions in the margins.

"Frankly, the government would work better with more people like Chris," said CR Wooters, a former Van Hollen aide who served as his chief of staff at the time. "Does he get to a place in the Senate where he's a guy who does deals? That wouldn't surprise me at all."

twitter.com/jfritze

Chris Van Hollen

Party: Democrat

Age: 57

Prior experience: Md. House of Delegates, 1991-1995; state Senate, 1995-2003; U.S. House of Representatives, 2003-present

Personal: Married, three children

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