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Inside Man

Michael Capuano's rising star.

On Monday, Nancy Pelosi made an announcement that was buried amid the tumult over the Steny Hoyer-Jack Murtha battle for House majority leader. It was the appointment of Representative Michael Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat, to be the head of Pelosi's "transition team" as she assumes the job of House speaker. The assignment, as The Boston Globe explained it, "will give Capuano a major role in shaping the House agenda for the beginning of the term, as well as oversight on a host of logistical issues involving the change from Republican to Democratic control of the House," such as office assignments, staffing decisions, and budget decisions.

Many of Pelosi's closest allies are familiar names--Murtha of Pennsylvania, George Miller and Anna Eshoo of California. But, as Democrats assume control of the House, keep an eye on Mike Capuano. Although he's little-known, even in Washington, Capuano is one of the fastest-rising figures in the court of Pelosi.

On one level, that's not a surprise: Capuano represents Massachusetts's 8th congressional district, which includes Cambridge, Somerville, and parts of Boston. His is among the most storied seats in Congress; previous occupants include the rascalish James Michael Curley, a young John F. Kennedy, and former Speaker Tip O'Neill himself. But, when Capuano was first elected in 1998 (a campaign I covered for the Boston Phoenix), he seemed destined to be a workmanlike backbencher, not a leadership player. As the mayor of blue-collar Somerville, Capuano was a profane and sometimes abrasive machine pol (he reveals few signs of his Dartmouth pedigree) with no great achievements to his name. At one 1998 campaign event, I saw Capuano confront a mild-mannered opponent who had criticized his record and thuggishly jab his finger into his rival's sternum. Capuano won a ten-candidate Democratic primary with a puny 23 percent of the vote (and faced no serious opposition in the general election).

I interviewed Capuano a couple of times after he joined Congress. With a chip on his shoulder, a seeming disdain for political elites, and constant profane wisecracks, Capuano reminded me of Rodney Dangerfield at the Bushwood Country Club in Caddyshack. During the 1999 NATO bombing campaign, for instance, he claimed that he couldn't find Kosovo on a map. After one cancelled meeting with politicos from Kazakhstan, he made a dismissive crack about "Kazakh-fuck." (Poor Borat!). And in his new Washington office one day, I saw Capuano with his shoes off, feet up on his desk, watching some preening Republican on C-SPAN feed and barking, "You piece of shit!" He seemed, to be blunt, something of a buffoon. But Capuano turned out to be a shrewd inside player on the Hill. Over the last few years, he has made a name as a particularly aggressive liberal agitator--often standing up during Democratic caucus meetings and calling for fiercer tactics against the House GOP leadership. One senior Democratic aide admiringly calls him "cold-blooded" about political combat. Capuano also bonded personally with Pelosi, who, earlier this year, named him to head a group reexamining Democratic caucus rules like committee seniority.

It's easy to see why Democrats might want to raise Capuano's profile. As a barrel-chested Italian Catholic, he hardly looks the part of an effete Massachusetts liberal--he's more Reagan Democrat than Kerry Democrat. "I talk like a city kid," I once heard him tell a group of college students. "But guess what? I'm smart. And it takes [people] a minute to figure it out. I'm not good with my English." On the issues, Capuano is a strong economic populist who's wary of free trade. And, yes, he's a social liberal in the Boston tradition--a supporter of gay marriage and opponent of a flag-burning ban. But Capuano has an almost libertarian attitude on those issues and doesn't share the militancy found in some of his Cambridge constituents. "I'm as pro-choice as you can get, and yet I think my party should be welcoming of pro-life Democrats," Capuano told the Globe last year. "Same thing [with gay marriage]. I understand where some good Democrats would agree with me on everything but this and I want them in the party."

To be sure, Capuano is just one of several newly-empowered Massachusetts House members. There's also Barney Frank, who will chair the Financial Services Committee; Jim McGovern, who will be the number-two Democrat on Rules; and Ed Markey, who will chair the Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee. But none may have the ear of the incoming speaker quite like the brassy former mayor of Somerville, who is unexpectedly rising to his historic seat's storied legacy.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.