Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a fellow Marylander, urged Van Hollen to seek the slot as the House Democrats’ leading spokesman on fiscal matters. “I perceived Chris as having the capability to represent our party vis-à-vis Paul Ryan, who himself is very able and very articulate,” Hoyer says. Ryan, then the incoming chairman of the House Budget Committee, became House speaker this past October.
Despite wide ideological differences, Van Hollen and the cerebral Ryan are said to have developed a close friendship. Not long after the two had assumed their respective parties’ top positions on the budget committee, the Van Hollens hosted Ryan and his wife for dinner at their modified rambler in Kensington, and Katherine Van Hollen gave the avidly conservative Ryan a gift for his children: a puzzle highlighting the nationwide impact of the programs created by the liberal New Deal of the 1930s.
Several who know him see an introverted side to Van Hollen’s sunny exterior. “Look, I love people, but I’m not sort of a glad-hander,” says Van Hollen, who tends to preface a sentence with “look” whenever he is seeking to drive home a point. “But I do enjoy getting out and talking to people about things that are important to them.
“When constituents come down to Capitol Hill, a lot of people hide out in their offices,” Van Hollen says of some of his colleagues.
“I always make a point of meeting them. … I learn an awful lot from my constituents.”
“He’s a complex guy,” Wooters says. “He’s a tough guy, too. He’s been through a lot of battles at this point, be they policy or campaign battles, and I think you become tougher as a result of that.”
Christopher Van Hollen Jr. was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1959, while his father, Christopher Van Hollen Sr., was stationed at the U.S. Embassy there. The congressman’s mother, Edith Eliza (who often went by her middle name), was among the first women hired by the Central Intelligence Agency as a research analyst following her graduation from Harvard with a master’s degree in Russian studies in the early 1950s. After Van Hollen’s father retired from the Foreign Service in 1978, Eliza went to work at the State Department in Washington, D.C.—eventually rising to chief of the South Asia division of the department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Between foreign postings, the family resided in McLean, Virginia, often vacationing at a Vermont farmhouse owned by Eliza’s father—a structure that lacked electricity or indoor plumbing until recent years. “He used to love to go completely off-trail with my father, and sort of get lost and bushwhack his way back,” Cecilia Van Hollen, now an associate professor of anthropology at Syracuse University, says of her brother. “They’d sometimes arrive home very late at night, with my mother worrying about them.”
The Vermont house remains in the family. Over the years, Van Hollen has relived his boyhood adventures there with his two sons.
“Whenever I got out with my boys on major expeditions, we’d always find a way to get lost for a little while,” he says. “At least there’s the moment when you don’t know where you are, and you’re panicked—and you have to find your way back.”
Van Hollen was a teenager when the family arrived in Sri Lanka. “He was old enough to understand and appreciate what it was that our family was doing there, the notion that diplomacy could be a positive force,” Cecilia says. “It also made him think carefully and critically about the extent to which America measured up. From that point on, it became clear that was the direction he was going to move in.”
At Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Van Hollen became involved in advocating for the nuclear freeze movement of that era, among other causes. He spent a couple of summers hitchhiking around Alaska with a college roommate, taking advantage of the relatively high wages paid by fish processing plants along the state’s Kenai Peninsula. After graduating from Swarthmore in 1982, he went to Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to pursue a master’s degree in public policy. His classmates included his future wife. They met at a party during orientation week. “We started talking about different things and ended up having this big disagreement over the nuclear freeze issue,” Katherine says. They began meeting regularly at a local pancake house. “We were both deeply committed to the idea of changing the world. We spent a lot of time getting to know each other, first in these discussions over big issues.”
A native of Washington, D.C., Katherine (professionally, she uses her maiden name, Katherine Wilkens) is now deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and her resume includes stints at the Energy Department and as a top aide at the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Some who know the Van Hollens characterize her as his top political adviser; several in local political circles also describe her as having a sharper-edged personality than her genial husband.
“He has the good fortune of having a wife who is equally talented and equally ambitious—and I don’t mean that in a negative way,” Miller says. “It’s just that they have a common goal. …It’s a team.”
Van Hollen and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with whom he has close ties, at a press conference in 2009. At the time, Van Hollen held the title of assistant to the speaker, while also chairing the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Photos by Joshua Landau.
The couple married in 1987, two years after Van Hollen arrived on Capitol Hill as an aide to Sen. Charles Mathias, the now deceased liberal Republican who held the Maryland seat that Van Hollen hopes to capture this year. On the recommendation of Galbraith, with whom he was attending Georgetown University Law Center in the evenings, Van Hollen moved to the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and appeared to be headed for a career in the family business of overseas diplomacy. But in 1989, Van Hollen left the committee for a job in Maryland’s federal affairs office under then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
To both Galbraith, later the ambassador to Croatia during the Clinton administration, and another fellow foreign relations staffer, Gerald Connolly, now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Northern Virginia, the reason for the switch was readily apparent. “I think Chris wanted a political career, and he understood that, generally speaking, people aren’t going to elect you to office from the foreign relations committee,” Connolly says.
Van Hollen’s change of direction also came as the collapse of the Soviet Union put foreign policy on a political back burner. All of a sudden, the Cold War was over, “which was obviously a good thing,” he says. “But my emphasis had been on arms control and the U.S.-Soviet strategic [relationship].”
Van Hollen grew up in the Virginia suburbs between foreign postings, but he and Katherine opted to settle on the Maryland side of the Potomac, a choice he attributes to his family’s roots. “My father’s family goes back generations in Baltimore,” Van Hollen says.
The family helped to settle a north Baltimore neighborhood, the site today of a “Hollen Road.” Van Hollen’s great-grandfather was the head of a Baltimore-based oyster packing company. His grandfather aspired to be a lawyer, but lost his hearing while fighting in World War I and worked as account clerk for Baltimore Gas and Electric. The family’s political values were shaped significantly by Van Hollen’s grandfather, an ardent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, Cecilia says.
Van Hollen’s introduction to Maryland politics came in 1986, when he was active in the campaign to elect Schaefer, then Baltimore’s mayor, as governor. In early 1989, a midterm vacancy occurred in the state legislative delegation from Kensington/Chevy Chase-based District 18, and Van Hollen sought appointment to the slot through a vote of the district’s Democratic caucus. He lost—the only loss so far in his long political career.
A year later, when then-Del. Patricia Sher successfully challenged incumbent state Sen. Margaret Schweinhaut over abortion rights, Sher organized the “Choice Team,” and asked Van Hollen to be a part of it. In January 1991, Van Hollen was sworn in as a member of the state House of Delegates, just as he turned 32.
Van Hollen laughs off a widely held notion that he is following a carefully crafted script of where he wants to go and how to get there. “I don’t think anyone,” he says, suddenly stopping himself. “Well, I shouldn’t say that. I guess Bill Clinton knew from age 5 that he wanted to be president.”
He goes on: “I wasn’t thinking about getting into elective politics when I got interested in foreign policy and defense. I then got much more focused on other issues and saw the capacity of the political process to change things through grassroots movements.