Chris Van Hollen hopes to become the first U.S. senator from Montgomery County in a century. Photo by Liz Lynch
In late 1988, Peter Galbraith, then a senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was tasked with heading an overseas staff mission to Turkey to gather proof that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against his country’s Kurdish minority. Galbraith wasted no time in deciding on who he wanted to take along on a journey fraught with possible hazards: It was fellow committee staffer Chris Van Hollen.
Then 29, Van Hollen was nearly a decade Galbraith’s junior. “Chris was the immediate choice because he’s smart, and because we would be interviewing people along the Iraq/Turkey border, and Chris had lived in Turkey,” says Galbraith, alluding to the period in the mid-1960s when Van Hollen’s father, Christopher Sr., had been stationed in that country as a member of the Foreign Service.
“Most importantly, he was brave. He was willing to take risks. This trip was going to be potentially dangerous and uncomfortable. And there weren’t other staffers who really were willing to do that.”
Van Hollen had exhibited a penchant for risk-taking dating back to his teenage years, when his father was posted as ambassador to Sri Lanka. The family would take trips into the jungle, and Van Hollen would insist on riding atop the Jeep in which they were traveling. “It was dangerous because sometimes we would be confronted and charged by elephants,” Van Hollen’s youngest sister, Cecilia, recalls. “But he always liked to ride on the top, and when the elephants came after us, he had to scramble down as fast as possible.”
More recently, Van Hollen has confronted the political variety of elephants—to say nothing of a few donkeys—in a series of high-stakes career gambles. Starting out as the underdog in elections for the state legislature and Congress, he overcame the odds to rise to the position he has held for the past 13 years—member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Montgomery County-based 8th District.
Van Hollen was elected to the Maryland Senate in 1994, where he served for eight years.
Now, as he seeks to become the first U.S. senator from Montgomery County in a century, Van Hollen is rolling the dice again. He is giving up a safe House seat, as well as the prospect of becoming the leader of the House Democrats—and perhaps House speaker one day—to seek a position where, despite widespread support from the Democratic Party establishment, success is by no means assured. In the April primary, he faces his House colleague, Prince George’s County Rep. Donna Edwards, an African-American in a state where an estimated 40 percent of registered Democrats are black.
Does he perceive himself as a risk-taker? “Not a reckless risk-taker,” Van Hollen says with a smile during an interview over breakfast. “I always think it’s risky when people get stuck in ruts. So I like to explore new terrain. And that comes with some risks.”
Another smile crosses his face as he munches on a bowl of granola just blocks from where he hopes to be working come January 2017: the Senate side of Capitol Hill. “But I would still jump with a parachute,” he adds—recalling how he had done exactly that at the request of his daughter, Anna, to celebrate her 18th birthday.
Those who know him well say Van Hollen possesses a strategic sense that has functioned as a figurative parachute throughout his career. “He’s been successful at every attempt at office that he’s run for—he doesn’t see why this should be any different,” says Thomas V. Mike Miller, the longtime president of the Maryland Senate, where Van Hollen served for eight years. “He measures the odds before he jumps in the race, and then jumps in full blast.”
Chris Van Hollen and Rahm Emanuel both arrived in Congress as freshmen following the 2002 election, and between them chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the political arm of the House Democratic Caucus, for six years. By all accounts, they developed a close relationship despite an Oscar-and-Felix personality contrast: If Emanuel, later the White House chief of staff and now the mayor of Chicago, rarely finishes a sentence in private without employing the f-word, Van Hollen has a reputation, both publicly and privately, for Boy Scout-like courtesy.
“The reputation of Chris that he’s a nice guy and he’s very smart—I think those things are totally true,” says CR Wooters, a Washington lobbyist who is a former chief of staff to Van Hollen. “I think what people don’t fully understand is how passionate he is and how hard he works. Most of the staff has to spend a lot of time running as fast as they can to keep up with him.”
Van Hollen, who turns 57 this January, regularly works 15- to 16-hour days, and appears to function well on limited sleep. “I usually cut off the email by midnight,” he says. “I cannot survive for a sustained period of time on three to four hours of sleep, but I can do it in bursts.”
He exhibits a similar drive in his approach to life outside the office. “In our household, he’s the one who instigates the outings. He’s always the one who says, ‘We have to take this vacation, we have to climb this mountain,’ ” says Katherine Van Hollen, his wife of nearly three decades. Even when relaxing at home, Risk—in the form of the board game—is close at hand. As their children were growing up, he would lead “massive Risk games that would go on for days,” she recalls.
Since shortly after they were married, home for the couple has been Kensington—where Chris Van Hollen used to take their Labrador/golden retriever mix, Chesapeake, who died in 2014, for swims along Beach Drive. “She would come out of the creek and smell for days, and I would be so upset,” Katherine recalls with a laugh. “But he thought it was so unfair not to allow her to enjoy swimming. That is sort of how he views [life]: He works hard and he plays hard.”
Their three children are grown now—Anna, 25, works for Instagram in Palo Alto, California; Nicholas, 23, works for a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, and Alexander, 20, is a sophomore at Georgetown University. When the kids were younger, their father was often gone for days at a time. “He made a great effort to bundle his trips, and to always be around for the important things,” Katherine says. “He was able to do his stuff—and remain heavily involved in the children’s day-to-day lives.”
When Van Hollen’s children—Nicholas (left), Alexander (center) and Anna—were younger, he made an effort to bundle his work trips so he wouldn’t miss out on their lives. All of his kids helped out on his campaigns, and still do.
On Capitol Hill, Van Hollen manages his duties as a member of his party’s leadership while also keeping a close eye on virtually all aspects of his congressional office. Notwithstanding a frequently messy desk, he is said to be a perfectionist, and regularly involves himself in details—such as reviewing outgoing mail—that other members of Congress leave to staffers.
His desk is often piled high with briefing books. “I think he is more of a policy wonk,” observes one person who has known and worked with Van Hollen for many years. “But he has learned over the years—probably starting before he was in the state legislature—that you can’t take good ideas from inception to fruition without having a political strategy and a communications strategy.”
That combination of policy intellect and strategic savvy prompted a number of colleagues to prod Van Hollen at the end of 2010 to seek the key post of ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, even though he had not previously served on that panel.