A Walk Among the Blue Dogs

Editors' Note: This piece has been corrected.

Jason Smith was not exactly the type of Blue Dog I expected to run into at the invitation-only "A Blue Night in Denver" party the conservative Democratic group hosted here Sunday night.

I met Smith by chance at the bar at Mile High Station, a spacious, two-level venue located almost directly underneath the section of Interstate 25 that overpasses Route 70. Organizers cleared the parking lot in the back and erected a giant white tent to house an outdoor soundstage. Above that tent was a massive highway billboard advertising Oliver Stone's new biopic W., replete with the promotional photo of Josh Brolin as The Decider leaning back in his Oval Office chair with cowboy boot-clad feet stretched out in front of him.

I pointed to the billboard as a way to strike up a conversation with Smith, whose lapel pin said he was from Texas, a tough state for a Democrat of any ideological stripe. The 40-year-old trial lawyer from Fort Worth turned out to be a proud Hillary Clinton supporter, who identifies as "very liberal Democrat" and sees a place for Blue Dogs within the Democratic Party.

This Dog is no PUMA, folks, and he is far from an orthodox centrist. (He said he will vote for Clinton on the symbolic ballot taken Wednesday and then vote for Obama after that.) When I asked Smith if he were worried that Barack Obama's nomination might jeopardize the Democrats' stars-aligned chance to take back the White House, he cheered the ideological ground shift occurring within the party.

"I'm glad the party moved to the left," said Smith. "The only way Obama loses is if he goes the other way. This is a change election and folks are voting Democratic because they want change." I almost spilled my Jack-and-Diet Coke.

Smith said he is confident Blue Dogs will be there for Obama because they are practical and want to win. He also believes the group gets an unfair rap from liberals within the party. "My experience with Blue Dogs is that they are basically strong Democrats, but they cut the corporations more slack," he told me. The Blue Dogs are a more business-friendly, fiscally conservative wing of the Democratic Party dominated by members from redder states and overrepresented by Southern members who hail from the kind of districts Democrats lose in presidential elections. The coalition includes some of the members with the most conservative voting records in the Democratic Caucus, including the most conservative, Mississippi's Gene Taylor.

That slack-cutting was precisely what brought a fired-up contingent of three dozen or so Code Pink protestors out to the sidewalks in front of Mile High Station. As the Blue Dogs inside drank and nibbled on grilled cheese triangles and ham-and-pickle mini biscuits, the Pink crusaders outside were making quite a fuss.

AT&T, you see, was the party's primary sponsor, and the Code Pink crowd wouldn't exactly describe as "slack-cutting" the immunity from charges of illegal domestic wiretapping that AT&T and its fellow telecommunication giants were granted with the help of some complicit congressional Democrats, a few of whom were noshing on cheese sandwiches inside. "AT&T, we've got your number," they shouted.

Here's a number I started to tally in my notebook before giving up: the list of sponsors (roughly three dozen) scrolling continuously across the flat-screen TVs above the bar at Mile High Station. Almost every industry had a company or trade association on the roll call: Conoco, Novo Nordisc, Citibank, the National Automobile Dealers Association, and the suddenly embattled National Association of Mortgage Bankers were there, to name a few. (The party was closed to the media and I was initially turned away; fortunately, a friend who works for one of the sponsoring companies had an extra ticket, which he gave me on the condition that I not mention the firm in this story.)

Given the somewhat rural and Southern tilt to the Blue Dog coalition, the music on Sunday was more heavily influenced by Memphis and Austin than Motown or Atlanta. And it must be noted that, on the eve of a convention about to elect the first majority-party African American candidate in history, "A Blue Night in Denver" was noticeably white. Of course, there is only one African American Blue Dog in Congress -- Georgia's David Scott -- and a mere handful of Latinos, including California's Loretta Sanchez and Colorado's John Salazar.

The next afternoon I caught up with Charles Rangel, the veteran congressman from Harlem, current chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, and no Blue Dog he. I asked if he thought Blue Dogs were losing influence within the caucus. He paused a moment, as if to acknowledge that he knew exactly why a writer from a liberal magazine might tee up this kind of question for him, then shot me a look that said he'd been around too long to foolishly take a full swing at that.

"Well, we haven't seen the landslide we expected, yet," said Rangel, referring to the 2006 results that put him into the chairman's seat. "So we have to wait and not count our chickens before they're hatched. And right now [the Blue Dogs] are very helpful to me on my committee, especially on issues of fiscal conservatism. We operate on a consensus basis within the caucus, so let's see what happens." Translation: We both know I'd like to have the majorities I need without them -- but I don't yet, and until I do I'm not going to kick a Blue Dog while it sleeps.

If there's not much color in the coalition, neither is there much estrogen -- of the 47-member Blue Dog coalition, only six are women. Of these, two are rookies -- Arizona's Gabrielle Giffords and New York's Kirsten Gillibrand -- and a third who only won her first full term last cycle: South Dakota's Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, who won a special election first before being re-elected in 2006. Perhaps the coalition will change in time with the infusion of these newer, younger members and more input from women.

I asked Democratic pollster and women's vote expert Celinda Lake about this as we strolled along downtown Denver's 16th Street pedestrian walkway. "I think that women voters and women Democrats believe in a proper role for government, and the corporate stuff is a bit of a turnoff," said Lake. "Even the women in the coalition have the most progressive voting records for Blue Dogs, by far."

The highlight of "A Blue Night" for me was a brief conversation with Al From, the founder and president of the Democratic Leadership Council and the man more responsible for the centrist shift within the party than anyone other than that former Arkansas governor From helped elect to the White House. When asked his thoughts on Obama's chances, he kindly responded. "Obama has some work to do, but he'll do it," From said. "I think Obama will win -- he's going to win."

Many liberals believe the centrists' stewardship over the politics and policy of the party helped usher into the Oval Office that guy on the billboard hovering over the "Blue Night" tent. It was just a coincidence, but what a weird one indeed.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, Jason Smith's political identification was incorrect. He identifies as a "very liberal Democrat."

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