TOPICS > Politics

Hanging on to Their Seats

October 30, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT
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HEDRICK SMITH: Two years ago, 73 new Republicans swept into the House of Representatives promising a revolution. They were bold- they were different they vowed to shake the government to its very foundations. Their leader was Speaker Newt Gingrich, their political bible, the Contract with America. But today that Republican class of 1994 is under fire from Pennsylvania to Kansas to here in Seattle. They’re fighting for their political lives. And Speaker Gingrich has told them to do whatever it takes to get re-elected. Some are running as true believers in the revolution, but many more, facing criticism, are toning down their rhetoric, and still others have moderated their positions and declared their independence from Gingrich and the revolution.

No battleground is more sharply contested than Washington State, a swing state in recent congressional elections. After going strongly for the Democrats in 1992, the state went Republican two years later, electing six GOP freshmen.

ANCHOR: We are seeing sea change in both sides of Congress tonight.

HEDRICK SMITH: The question now is will the pendulum swing back this year? Five of the state’s Republican freshmen are vulnerable, none more than Randy Tate, from a blue-collar district south of Seattle.

RANDY TATE: It was John Sweeney, the head of the AFL-CIO, giving a speech at their national convention, and he went through this speech, and he said, “We’ve got to get rid of Newt Gingrich and flick Armey and Tom Delay and Randy Tate.” and I thought to myself, we’re gonna be in the election of our lives.

REP. NEWT GINGRICH: It takes two elections to make the revolution real.

HEDRICK SMITH: The stakes are so high in Washington State that already both parties have rolled tn their heavy artillery.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I’d like to ask him to come up here and just say a word of hello to you Adam, come here.

ADAM SMITH, Democratic Candidate: I want to get back to Congress, and I want to help them stand up for working families.

HEDRICK SMITH: Democrat Adam Smith, Randy Tate’s challenger, is running ahead by tying Tate to Speaker Newt Gingrich.

HEDRICK SMITH: What is this election about?

ADAM SMITH: I think it’s gonna be about a referendum on the Republican Congress. The election is about whether or not people want to re-elect Newt Gingrich speaker and re-elect the Republican Congress.

HEDRICK SMITH: Do you see this then as a kind of a referendum on the Republican revolution itself?

RANDY TATE, (R) Washington: No, I don’t–I don’t see that my race is a referendum on the Republican revolution. I think it’s a referendum on two individuals that have two different views of what the government should be doing.

RANDY TATE: And we promised you that, if we went back there, that we would balance the budget, that we would change the way Congress does business and not let it change us

HEDRICK SMITH: Randy Tate represents the hard-core of the freshman class, the driving force of the revolution.

RANDY TATE: I’m here to report tonight that we have kept our word. (applause)

We, the freshman class of 1995, were sent to Washington–

HEDRICK SMITH: Tate has voted ninety-five percent of the time with the Republican leadership, and the leaders have repaid his loyalty, singling him out for help in this election. In an extraordinary move, House Republican Whip Tom Delay sent a letter to political action committees who had supported Tate’s democratic opponent in 1994. The letter said, in part, “while I was surprised to see you oppose Randy Tate, you now have an opportunity to work towards a positive future relationship.”

RANDY TATE: It’s not a threat. Give me a break. It’s encouraging them to donate to my campaign and keep the Republican majority.

HEDRICK SMITH: With this boost from Delay, Tate became a top freshman fund-raiser. But there was also a down side to Tate’s close ties with the leadership. Gingrich’s appearance at a Seattle fund-raiser touched off protests.

PROTESTERS: More kids, not Newt.

HEDRICK SMITH: And Tate’s votes to cut the growth of Medicare, roll back environmental and worker protections and block efforts to raise the minimum wage have angered his working class constituents, many of whom work at the mammoth Boeing plant here.

AD SPOKESMAN: Last year, Congressman Randy Tate voted to make it easier for corporations to raid other pensions without notifying workers.

HEDRICK SMITH: Smelling blood, outside interests led by the AFL-CIO mounted a massive ad campaign.

WOMAN IN AD: It should be illegal to do something like that.

RANDY TATE: The national AFL-CIO and the trial lawyers and other environmental groups, they spent over a million dollars in the last twelve months in my district alone running lies about my record.

ADAM SMITH: This Congress, this Republican Congress, has raised more money than any majority party in Congress in the history of this country. My opponent, Randy Tate, raised four hundred thousand dollars before he even got in the race. He’s raised over a million now.

HEDRICK SMITH: Steve Rosenthal is national political director for the AFL-CIO.

STEVE ROSENTHAL, AFL-CIO: We’ve got somewhere in the neighborhood of–uh–thirty-five to forty thousand union members who live and work in that district, and we intend to let them decide this year if this is a guy who they think adequately represents them in Washington.

HEDRICK SMITH: Like many other workers, Chuck Bixby, a member of the Teamsters Union, voted for Randy Tate two years ago.

CHUCK BIXBY, Smith Supporter: Being new, I thought maybe he’d go and make a change. Well, my vote this year is going to Adam Smith. I do not like the way that things have gone. I think he could’ve voiced opinions as to really represent the working people, the people in the northwest, and I just don’t think that’s been done.

HEDRICK SMITH: Despite the heat, Tate is staying true to the revolution.

RANDY TATE: Why should I be embarrassed to come back two years later and say, “I did exactly what I said I was going to do”? I’m not gonna run away from my record when 80 percent of the public wants a balanced budget, 80 percent of the public wants welfare reform.

HEDRICK SMITH: Tate has energized Republican activists like Shirley Thompson.

SHIRLEY THOMPSON: He’s a very honest man; he’s a very hard worker. He’s very much of a family man; he goes to church on a regular basis, but he doesn’t beat you up with the Bible, so to speak. He lives what he believes.

HEDRICK SMITH: And if Tate survives, he’s likely to interpret his reelection as a mandate to resume the revolution.

RANDY TATE: Well, I think that’ll–it’ll reinforce what the public told us two years ago. And, if I’m re-elected, which we believe we will, and the Republicans control Congress, we’ll continue down the path of standing up for taxpayers.

HEDRICK SMITH: In the suburban, high-tech district on the Puget Sound, north and west of Seattle, Rick White is struggling to hold his seat with a more pragmatic strategy.

RICK WHITE: Yes, Josh, I’m doing just great. How’s everybody doing there? Out of the two hundred and thirty-six Republicans we have in the House, probably a hundred and seventy-five of them have a safe seat–we’re not in that category.

HEDRICK SMITH: In 1994, White, a Seattle attorney and political novice, Road the anti-Democratic tide into Congress–and embraced the Contract with America. He was a fiscal hawk bent on balancing the budget. White lives on Bainbridge Island, a ferry ride from Seattle. Like many people in his picturesque, affluent and environmentally sensitive district, White moved here with his family to enjoy nature and to climb the nearby Olympic mountain peaks.

RICK WHITE: Can chop a little–uh–step out, you know, if the snow is too hard to step in it.

WOMAN: We did vote for change, yes. We did not vote to see the rollback of the laws that protect our air, that protect our water.

HEDRICK SMITH: But ironically, it was White’s votes to reduce environmental protection, especially his vote to remove obstacles to logging tn old growth forests, that raised a storm of protest back home.

SPOKESMAN: And I also believe, as a conservative, that we need to preserve the heritage of wilderness, forest, wildlife and rivers for our grandchildren.

HEDRICK SMITH: His opponent, Jeff Coppersmith, has pinned his hopes on painting White as an extremist on the environment and social issues and on casting himself as a moderate, pro-business, tough-on-crime Democrat. At a recent meeting with the editorial board of the Seattle Times, Coppersmith took the offensive.

JEFF COOPERSMITH, Democratic Candidate: The voters in this race face a clear choice, a choice between moderation and extremism. My opponent, Rick White, has voted with the Gingrich agenda ninety-three percent of the time.

HEDRICK SMITH: But, unlike Tate, White points to specific votes where he’s broken with his leadership.

RICK WHITE: And then, you know, starting on May 16th and continuing with the environmental riders–you know, where they wanted to zero out seventeen environmental programs in a big budget bill–I voted against that three times. I voted against that when it was a tie, when my vote would’ve made the difference for the party winning or not.

HEDRICK SMITH: White’s argument has made an impression. The Seattle Times, which backed White’s Democratic opponent two years ago, has endorsed him this year.

JONI BALTER, Seattle Times: I think that–that Rick began to realize–ah–maybe when many of them began to realize, say, last February, that the Republicans had gone too far. But as–as the year went on, he did start to vote much more moderately on the environment.

HEDRICK SMITH: But voters like these neighbors, who know White as a fellow member of a father-daughter camping group, are slower to accept that White has been the district’s true voice in Congress.

JOHN MUENSTER, Neighbor: He seemed to be a thoughtful person, and I had the impression that he might turn out to be a moderate. But he turned out to be a Gingrich right-wing conservative.

HEDRICK SMITH: In June of 1996, they wrote a letter protesting White’s vote to repeal the assault weapons ban. Some of the criticism comes from people that are really very close to you. How do you answer that one?

REP. RICK WHITE, (R) Washington: Well — uh — I mean, I have to answer them on the issues and I–frankly, I–I’d be surprised if any of them really thought I was unreasonable on these things. They may disagree with me, but I don’t think many of them will think that I haven’t thought very seriously, with an open mind, about each and every one of these issues.

MICHAEL SCOTT, Neighbor: The irony is that–uh–in this election, I’m very uncomfortable with the Democratic challenger. And, had it been–that Rick had–had reconsidered his vote on the assault weapons ban, had given a thoughtful response to–uh–some of his other votes, I would definitely be–uh–considering supporting him in this election–uh–but I am not. I think his views have been too consistently with that extreme group of the Republican Congressmen.

RICK WHITE: Hi, guys, I’m Rick white, I’m trying to –

HEDRICK SMITH: If White does win over enough skeptics, he’ll return to Congress with lower expectations for major change.

RICK WHITE: I think people are a lot more realistic than they were in the past I think that we’ve recognized, you know, we can’t do it all by ourselves–uh the Constitution has the Senate in there. The Constitution’s got the President. And I think there’s been a, um, a learning process, and–uh you know, I think we are a little sadder but wiser.

PHIL ENGLISH: (in parade) How’re you doing? Good to see you guys.

HEDRICK SMITH: Across the country, in northwest Pennsylvania, another freshman in a tight race, Phil English, is running a very unusual ad.

AD SPOKESMAN: Even President Clinton thanked Phil English for his independent action on behalf of working families. The president signed into law the minimum wage bill, originally coauthored by Phil English.

HEDRICK SMITH: In a debate, English made this claim

PHIL ENGLISH: I was praised by the butler eagle a few weeks ago for having not signed on with the Dole tax plan without seeing more details.

HEDRICK SMITH: In a freshman class whose early hallmarks were party loyalty and ideological unity, English represents a faction that have distanced themselves so far from their own leaders that at times they sound almost like Democrats.

PHIL ENGLISH: I think clearly that the freshman class was depicted as being much more ideologically monolithic than it–it really was in the final analysis. We are a diverse class, but the way we were portrayed–the way we portrayed ourselves to the public, I think, tended to paint us in very much of–of one shade, and I don’t think that’s accurate.

HEDRICK SMITH: Nonetheless, his Democratic opponent, Ron Dinicola, a lawyer from a union family and a former amateur boxer, keeps punching away at his opponent’s links to Newt Gingrich.

RON DINICOLA, Democratic Candidate: I know Phil English’s first vote is qonna be to re-elect him Speaker of the House. We got to stop that. We got to change the direction of this country; we need a Congress that’s gonna work with the president, no gridlock–no shutdowns, let’s have a dynamic political center. I mean people are concerned about Newt Gingrich. He’s an issue.

HEDRICK SMITH: Despite qualms about some elements of the Republican revolution, English went along with party leaders in 1995, when they loaded their budget plan with cutbacks in programs like job training, worker safety, Head Start, and environmental protection.

PHIL ENGLISH: I think there were some situations where we probably could have left labor issues out of the–the appropriations process. When you get into it, I think we would have been better off if we hadn’t led with those changes.

HEDRICK SMITH: His vote to make seniors pay more for Medicare stirred an angry response.

ELDERLY MAN: So take care of it. Fix it. But don’t — don’t say well, we’ve gotta take it out of the backs of the senior citizens today. See, that isn’t right.

HEDRICK SMITH: English got the message and began to moderate his Votes to suit his rust belt industrial district. Last spring, he was one of twenty moderate Republicans joining Democrats to push for a raise in the minimum wage, a vote which he is now using to advantage.

PHIL ENGLISH: I am politically independent, and, if my leadership takes a position contrary to my district on issues like minimum wage, I’m going to represent my district,

DEBATE MODERATOR: The winner of the coin toss will be allowed to either speak first, or speak last. Do you understand that?

HEDRICK SMITH: In a recent debate, both candidates focused on English’s loyalties.

RON DINICOLA: There is the philosophy on the one hand that says all government is bad, everything that’s bad in society can be traced to the federal government. That’s the philosophy of Newt Gingrich and his extremist friends, my opponent signed a contract with Mr. Gingrich and voted with him over ninety percent of the time.

PHIL ENGLISH: I found when I researched this that I vote more often with Jim Traficant, my colleague over in Youngstown, Ohio, who’s a pro-labor Democrat, than I vote with Newt Gingrich.

RON DINICOLA: We have two Phil Englishes here; we have the one that it’s the politics of expediency. I think what we have here is, you know, St. Paul on the road to Damascus. I mean, we have a conversion going on here. We have an election coming up. We need to move quickly or we’re going to lose the seat.

HEDRICK SMITH: Back in ’94 you were running hard against the Democratic president with the party program. And now here we are in ’96. Your presidential candidate’s running behind there’s controversy about the republican program in congress and you’re running away from the party a bit, right?

PHIL ENGLISH: No. I think the agenda of issues has changed, and I’ve had an opportunity to move from being a candidate to be an elected office holder who listens within the district. I’m not gonna move back. I am where I’m going to be. As I’ve learned more about some issues, sure, some of my views have changes, but not radically.

HEDRICK SMITH: By shifting his stance, English has made himself a more difficult target.

JANET BALL, English Consultant: Mr. English’s opponent slams his–his position on Medicare at every opportunity. I think that Mr. English–uh–is trying very hard to do his best for–for northwestern Pennsylvania.

AD SPOKESPERSON: Ever wonder what happened to American government?

HEDRICK SMITH: And, helped by a late wave of political ads funded by pro-Republican business interests, English has gained a slight edge in his race.

AD SPOKESPERSON: –working families and to protect Medicare.

HEDRICK SMITH: In the campaign home stretch, Phil English and other embattled Republican freshmen are doing what their party leaders have told them–forget about Republican solidarity and the Contract with America–hang on to your seat any way you can. Much rides on their campaigns. For how these Republican freshmen fare next fall and which ones of them survive will help set the tone for the next Congress and decide whether the Republican Revolution is over or just about to get a new lease on life.