Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. was reading a memo in his office from Rep. Chris Van Hollen when he noticed the note’s letterhead.

“It said ‘Assistant to the Speaker,’ ” said Miller, chuckling in amazement at Van Hollen’s improbable, lightning ascent from lowly state legislator to top congressional leader. “You know, he’s only been there a short time, but Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer recognize his leadership skills. The proof is in his rapid rise.”

Van Hollen, a liberal Democrat who represents Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, has wasted no time muscling his way into a top position in the House of Representatives.

Since Van Hollen’s election to Congress in 2002, House Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Hoyer, a fellow Marylander, have shown they believe in his abilities, awarding Van Hollen a second term at the helm of the House Democrats’ fundraising arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and carving out a leadership role for him on legislative issues by naming him assistant to the speaker.

The 50-year-old lawmaker made it to the top without the usual cutthroat tactics, but rather through determination and a driving ambition that aren’t likely to abate now that he occupies the No. 5 leadership spot in the House.

Van Hollen is widely believed to have higher ambitions. Perhaps the Senate, perhaps a more important House leadership role. Some have speculated Van Hollen, well-liked for his calm, approachable demeanor and ability to get things done, could be in line for majority leader or even House speaker someday.

When asked about such aspirations, Van Hollen demurred, telling the Examiner he was focused on preventing the Democrats from losing seats in the 2010 midterm elections.

“I wouldn’t close any doors on anything, but I want to stress that I’m very focused on what I’m doing,” Van Hollen said.

His focus is on helping the Democratic Party avoid a historical trend dating back generations. Though the House Democrats enjoy a 76-seat advantage, only two presidents since Abraham Lincoln have managed to stave off midterm losses in Congress in their first terms (Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush), and it is Van Hollen’s job to get Barack Obama into that exclusive club. “In order for us to hold our own, we have to beat history,” he said.

As DCCC chairman, Van Hollen recruits new Democratic candidates and raises the millions of dollars needed to help fund many of the more than 250 campaigns that will rev up next year. The job keeps Van Hollen on the road a lot, attending fundraisers and meeting with candidates in their districts.

In the Capitol, Van Hollen dons a second leadership hat, working with first- and second-term members and helping shape legislative policy alongside Pelosi and the rest of the leadership.

Even more critical is his role as a legislative liaison between the Obama administration and congressional Democrats. That job keeps him in close touch with his predecessor at the DCCC, former Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who quit Congress to serve as Obama’s chief of staff. The two talk twice a week, making Van Hollen a critical point person for coordinating the policy and politics of the White House and the Democrat-led Congress.

Van Hollen said his House leadership job would help him succeed in his second term as DCCC chairman.

“When you are talking about trying to get legislation through Congress, you want to have a good policy,” said Van Hollen, who once served as a Senate aide. “But you need to figure out strategically how to get it through, and that obviously involves a political element as well, so it’s a good combination.”

Van Hollen earned the plum assignment, and the title of assistant to the speaker, after his successful first turn at the helm of the DCCC, where he helped House Democrats pick up 21 seats in the November 2008 election. Pelosi offered Van Hollen the job after he said he might challenge Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., for Democratic caucus chairman, the No. 4 leadership position, which Larson was in line for.

Pelosi wanted to prevent an intraparty battle, and she knew this was no idle threat. Van Hollen won his first term in the House after an improbable Democratic primary victory over Kennedy nephew Mark Shriver, whom he took on even in the face of opposition from Hoyer and other senior Democrats, including the Kennedy clan and all its political muscle.

Miller said he was not surprised by Van Hollen’s audacity. Eight years earlier, while serving in the Maryland House of Delegates, Van Hollen took on his own senator, Patricia Sher, a popular longtime state lawmaker who was also a Democrat, but conservative. She had once helped the little-known Van Hollen get elected to the Maryland House by putting his name on her campaign signs.

“She was a good ol’ gal, she smoked, she drank, she enjoyed the beer halls in Silver Spring,” recalled Miller, who is also conservative and backed Sher’s campaign. “But she stayed too long and supported the good ol’ boys, and Chris took advantage of that. He outworked her, he knocked on all the doors. He bested her.”

Van Hollen took his victory to Miller’s office, where he bartered a coveted spot on the Senate’s budget and taxation committee in exchange for supporting Miller for Senate president.

Years later, Van Hollen used the same worker-bee tactic to defeat Shriver, who knocked on far fewer doors but whom everyone expected would win.

“He’s extremely ambitious,” Miller said of Van Hollen, adding with a laugh, “I was glad to get rid of him in the Senate because he’d have been coming after my job in a few years. Loyalty is not his forte.”

Van Hollen is equally tenacious in the House, where colleagues say he is indefatigable when it comes to working to pass legislation.

“I have been in Congress for over 30 years, and I must say that Chris Van Hollen is one of the best members I have seen in all that time,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who served with Van Hollen on the Government Oversight and Reform Committee. “If there were an especially important piece of legislation that this administration wanted to get through Congress, I would not think of any stronger ally to have in Congress than Chris Van Hollen.”

Van Hollen is also popular with rank-and-file Democratic House members, who appreciate the change from Emanuel’s confrontational style. “But he’s every bit as effective,” said freshman Rep. Dan Maffei, D-N.Y.

If Van Hollen is able to hold off major Democratic losses in the House next year, speculation will no doubt begin anew about where he will go next. With Sen. Barbara Mikulski showing no signs of retiring, a Senate run is probably out, but top congressional aides point out that Hoyer, Pelosi and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn are 20 years older than Van Hollen and that if he bides his time, there will eventually be room for him to move up.

But biding his time has not been Van Hollen’s style on the way to his current spot near the political summit.

“There are people who overstay their time in the spotlight, and Chris sees that and says he is a harder worker and a better candidate,” Miller said.