WASHINGTON - We've seen reminders of the best and worst of Rob Andrews in recent weeks.
The South Jersey congressman, a member of the House for 22 years, was recently handed an attractive post as cochairman of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. The title gives Andrews a role in guiding Democratic policy in the House, just as Congress wades into a huge debate on taxes, spending, and popular, expensive programs such as Medicare. His appointment earlier this month reflects the relationship he has built with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the faith she has in his talent for policy and politics. In a body where 435 members from small patches of the country clamber over one another for morsels of influence, it's an important political skill to be able to bond with one of the few people with real power.
Andrews "was selected based on his deep knowledge of policy issues that impact the middle class," Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami told The Inquirer.
The appointment, though, brought snarls from some fellow New Jersey Democrats. How, they wondered (off the record, of course), could Andrews be handed such a prize while facing an ethics investigation for his lavish family trip to Scotland, paid for with his campaign funds?
Andrews has said he followed all of the rules, but even if he's proven right, the issue has cast a cloud over him and his judgment.
It's not that fellow New Jerseyans have suddenly embraced altruistic calls for a higher code of conduct. It's that many of Andrews' home-state colleagues just don't like him. Mostly, they remain miffed about his decision to challenge Sen. Frank Lautenberg in the 2008 primary, when most Jersey Democrats had agreed to support the incumbent. Andrews broke ranks - and was promptly pounded in a one-sided defeat. Time has not healed this wound.
His political career appeared to be over, until Andrews pulled another stunning move: He ran again for his House seat, after promising he'd do no such thing. (And after his wife had conveniently sought, won, and relinquished the Democratic nomination). The headline of an Inquirer editorial called Andrews a "bare-faced liar."
Still, in a heavily Democratic district, Andrews coasted to reelection. He remains safely ensconced in his district - "the voters are the ultimate judge of these things," he said, and his website says he won more votes this past November than any House candidate in New Jersey history. But his statewide ambitions seemed dashed, and his role limited to being a congressman from one corner of New Jersey, nothing more.
In Washington, though, Andrews found a new avenue. He finally took his eye off other offices and focused on putting his evident intelligence and speaking ability to work in the House. (Even his trip to Scotland, he told congressional ethics investigators, was part of his effort to expand his influence in the capital.)
"Defeat is a great teacher," Andrews, 55, said Thursday. "It's an awful companion but a great teacher. What I learned is, if you devote too much energy to the office you'd like to run for next, you don't perform as well in the office you're entrusted in now."
He speaks proudly of having helped craft President Obama's health-care law, and during the bloody debate on the bill, Pelosi relied on him to help deliver the Democratic message. Even his critics recognize his skill for understanding policy and explaining it in a way that is easy to grasp and convincing.
On Friday, Andrews held a conference call about the fiscal cliff. He smoothly cycled through the ins and outs of tax policy and spending cuts. He spoke off the cuff about a wide range of issues, explaining politics, policy, and the intersection of the two. Normally, if you combine those talents with Andrews' longevity, you'd see a congressman with real influence.
But big mistakes have hampered a man who flashes the qualities for success in Washington. For most members of Congress, chances in the spotlight are rare, and two of Andrews' most recent headline moments have been unflattering.
In Washington, though, Pelosi's move gives Andrews a fresh chance to expand his profile and reach.
Now we get to see if it brings out the best of Andrews, or something less.