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Chris Van Hollen pushes message of effectiveness

Chris Van Hollen pushes message of effectiveness
SEIU's Lisa Brown (right watches as Rep. Chris Van Hollen shakes hands with potential voters in Baltimore. (Linda Davidson / Baltimore Sun)

Rep. Chris Van Hollen went to the White House more than a dozen times to discuss spending and taxes during touchy federal budget negotiations on Capitol Hill a few years ago. But he rarely left without pulling the president aside to ask about something else.

The Montgomery County Democrat wanted to know: What was the Obama administration doing to bring home Marylander Alan Gross, the government subcontractor held in Cuba since 2009?

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"He cares about his constituents," said Gross, who was released in 2014 as part of a broader deal between the United States and Cuba.

"I didn't get special treatment," Gross said. "His constituents are who he works for, and he's answerable to them."

For the 57-year old lawmaker, now in his seventh term in Congress, the advocacy on behalf of Gross underscores some of the strengths he has touted in his campaign for Maryland's open Senate seat: an ability to maneuver at the highest levels of government, a penchant for difficult negotiations and, ultimately, a record of delivering results.

An ally of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Van Hollen has risen quickly from the back bench of the House of Delegates in Annapolis to the upper echelons of power in Washington. Elected to Congress in 2002, he was chosen by his colleagues eight years later to be the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, and his name has often been in the mix as a potential candidate to lead the caucus.

In recent years, Van Hollen's job has mainly entailed blocking budget cuts proposed by the GOP. But he has a long list of accomplishments from past years. As a state senator he pushed through a school funding formula that benefited Baltimore. In Congress, he secured money to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, and helped pass a law that allows children with disabilities to hold tax-advantaged savings accounts.

"People see him as workhorse; people see him as somebody who gets things done," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a longtime ally. "He uses his personality, he uses his strong will and he uses his determination to make things happen."

At times Van Hollen's opponent, Rep. Donna F. Edwards, has managed to use his efforts on behalf of the Democratic caucus against him. She has criticized him, for instance, for remarks he gave in 2012 suggesting he might be willing to consider raising the retirement age for Social Security as part of a larger deal to improve its solvency.

Van Hollen has rejected the claim that he supports those cuts. But he also says he hasn't ruled out working with Republicans on areas of common ground.

"I have looked for opportunities to work across the aisle where possible, and I think that also increases your ability to be effective," Van Hollen told The Baltimore Sun.

Van Hollen was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to a U.S. foreign service officer and a State Department intelligence analyst. His Baltimore-born father served as ambassador to Sri Lanka in the 1970s under Republican Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford.

On the campaign trail, Van Hollen has often noted his family's history in Baltimore, a battleground in the Senate race. His family lent its name to Hollen Road in Cedarcroft. He is the great grandson of George Henry Van Hollen, who owned the Atlantic Packing Co. a seafood wholesale firm.

A graduate of Swarthmore College, with degrees in public policy from Harvard and law from Georgetown, Van Hollen served as an aide to Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias and to Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer. He worked with Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes as a staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was elected to a term in the state House of Delegates and two in the state Senate before heading to Washington.

Van Hollen, who lives in Kensington, rarely discuses personal pursuits, and it's not clear he has much time for them. He said he likes to take his three children fishing, hiking and camping. During the summer he sometimes gets away to family-owned property in Vermont that he says is "at the end of a long dirt road, with no cellphone coverage."

For now, Van Hollen seems a long way from having an opportunity to relax. The competitive race to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski has turned especially aggressive in recent days, with a series of new attack ads launched by both campaigns.

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Those who support Van Hollen point to what they see as a track record of achievement. Vincent DeMarco, a longtime gun control advocate in Annapolis, said that one of Van Hollen's most significant wins was steering a gun control measure through the General Assembly in 2000, over the objection of Democratic leaders. The bill requires that handguns sold in Maryland come with a trigger lock.

That effort is part of the reason Van Hollen supporters find it so galling that his commitment on gun control is now being questioned in the Senate race. Edwards has suggested Van Hollen kowtowed to the National Rifle Association by exempting the group from a 2010 campaign finance bill.

"It took a lot of guts and a lot of know-how," DeMarco said.

Now DeMarco believes Van Hollen is best positioned to advance a bill in Congress that would require gun buyers to obtain a license. Maryland passed a similar law in 2013.

"There isn't anyone else in the United States Congress that understands this right now," DeMarco said. "I believe with Chris in the Senate, there will be a lot more people who understand it."

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