The Democrats' stealth fighter

SUN JOURNAL

Strategist: A Baltimore native is playing a big role behind the scenes helping his party's candidates.

November 03, 2002|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - It was only Monday afternoon on Capitol Hill, and Gary Gensler was already having a busy week. He was off to a meeting with the Senate's top Democratic leaders, where he was to help plot their strategy on pension reform and other economic items.

There was a fund-raiser coming up at his multimillion-dollar Baltimore County home for state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., a Democrat who's trying to unseat Rep. Constance A. Morella in Montgomery County - just a "small get-together" featuring House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt.

And there was a plane to catch. On this autumn afternoon, he was flying to New York to "hustle" his new book - an investment guide - on the major TV news outlets. Through it all, Gensler's cellular phone chirped with urgency as congressional aides and colleagues, policy-makers and candidates sought answers or advice.

It was a typically hectic day for Gensler, a 45-year-old Baltimore native. And yet technically he is not holding down a steady job.

"I go where I'm needed," he said with a smile.

Gensler is not a lobbyist or a hired gun. He's not a political official or a paid talking head. He inhabits a realm between professional wonk and political operative and is valued in Democratic circles for his expertise on finance, his quiet-but-intense negotiating skill and his ability to cut deals that advance the party's agenda.

For months, as Democrats have sought to take advantage of public outrage about corporate scandals to focus on economic issues, Gensler has been kept busy on Capitol Hill. He was a strategist advising Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, the Maryland Democrat who leads the Senate Banking Committee, in drafting the major corporate reform law enacted this summer to respond to a flurry of high-profile business scandals. He is helping monitor the implementation of the law.

Then this fall, Gensler made himself available to help Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, craft the party's approach on pension reform. Calls to address the issue were drowned out on Capitol Hill by an intense debate over a possible war with Iraq. But it remains a top economic priority for Democrats.

On the side, Gensler has found time to dispense advice to Maryland Democratic campaigns - from the congressional bids of Van Hollen and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger to Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's run for governor - and to help the national party by briefing candidates on the best ways to promote the Democrats' economic agenda.

Gensler is no stranger to Congress, having served as a top Treasury Department official under President Bill Clinton. Nor is he new to the corporate issues that gripped the nation's attention - and Congress' agenda - for much of this year. He spent 18 years on Wall Street with the investment banking powerhouse Goldman Sachs, 10 of them as a partner.

But these days, Gensler - a slight, kinetic figure who easily blends into the Washington landscape with his dark suits and government ID tag on a ball chain - is harder to pin down. Though he operates at the highest echelons of Democratic leadership, colleagues say, Gensler often flies below the radar.

He peeked his head out earlier this year, surfacing as a part-time consultant on Capitol Hill while advising Sarbanes. He joined Sarbanes' staff during final negotiations on the financial reform bill, though he made it clear he had no interest in a full-time position.

Having made millions at Goldman Sachs during the 1990s, Gensler is not in the job market. He is, however, drawn to politics and legislative deal-making like a moth to a flame.

He has given more than $55,000 to Democratic candidates in the past decade, federal records show. And briefly this spring, he considered running for the House seat sought by Ruppersberger, but he was waved off by party leaders, who informed him it was "Dutch's turn," he said.

Gensler's involvement in politics began at an early age when, as a teen-ager, he accompanied his father, Sam, on frequent trips to Annapolis to lobby the state legislature.

Sam Gensler, the son of Eastern European immigrants who left Germany before the Nazis came to power, started and ran a vending machine business and was the unofficial chief lobbyist for his trade. The constant threat of taxes and licensing fees kept him making the drive to the state capital during the legislative session. It was during those trips that his son fell in love with politics.

Most of what Gary Gensler saw of 1960s Maryland politics was not admirable, he said, but it was never boring. "We lived in an environment where some very tough things went down, so I grew up understanding some of the underside" of politics, Gensler said, recalling the stories of corruption from his youth, featuring former Gov. Spiro T. Agnew among others. "But I always sort of saw it - and still see it - as something that fundamentally can be good."

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