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Mary McGrory

Louise Slaughter vs. the Mapmakers

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, June 13, 2002; Page A37

Over the years, Rep. Louise Slaughter has been known to cry wolf. Her friends -- and I am one of them -- have heard her laments about right-wing predators trying to drive her out of the the House of Representatives. But now the real thing is at her door. The outspoken feminist from upstate New York, who is a heroine to the press -- the term "no comment" has never passed her lips -- is being redistricted, big time, and is being thrown into a contest with a fellow Democrat, John LaFalce.

The New York state legislature solved the difficult problem of eliminating one Democratic member -- dictated by a falling population growth rate -- by moving to extinguish the career of the most provocative soul on the Hill. For once, it seems, it is nothing personal. It's just that both parties wanted to provide safe berths for their party fundraisers.

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Republican Tom Reynolds enjoyed the intervention of Vice President Cheney to make sure the mapmakers did right by Reynolds, who is succeeding Tom Davis as chairman of the House Republican campaign committee. Similarly, Washington checked in to provide homeland security for Reynolds's opposite number, Nita Lowey, who is in charge of the Democratic campaign committee. Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe and House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt went to bat for her.

LaFalce, characterized by CQ's "Politics in America" as a "reliable liberal -- except on abortion" and a 26-year veteran with considerable labor support, is a popular senior member of the Financial Services Committee. He was heard to say he can beat Slaughter, but for the record he says he's sure that the present redistricting will not stand and that he and Slaughter will be spared the "distasteful" business of running against one another. The plan gives her 44 percent of her old district but is currently in court.

Slaughter is a transplanted Kentuckian who still has the South in her mouth and speaks jocosely of her ability to hex people, as women in the mountains of her childhood are apt to say.

The wife of Korean War veteran Bob Slaughter and the mother of three daughters, she beat an incumbent to get into her county's legislature when her children had grown. She beat another incumbent to get a seat in the state legislature. She came to Congress in 1986, on the arm, so to speak, of movie star Richard Gere. She was waging the country's only anti-contra campaign. Activist Gere volunteered to pitch in. The pair went door to door, and the effect on housewives was sensational.

Republican women sneered in newspaper ads that Slaughter was running with "American Gigolo," the title of one of his movies. Slaughter countered that Gere personified the name of one of his other movies, "An Officer and a Gentleman." Her opposition was her third incumbent, Fred Eckert, a hard-nosed Republican conservative -- he opposed a measure to allow blind people to use welfare funds to buy food for their seeing eye dogs. Even so, and despite the fact that Eckert voted against bulletproof vests for policemen, she won by only a narrow margin. Monroe County was 2-1 Republican in those days; now it's 50-50, Slaughter says proudly.

Asked if she considered throwing in the towel in the face of this latest setback, Slaughter says it never crossed her mind. "I have things to do, on [the] Rules Committee and elsewhere" she says. Asked what would make the difference for her in a scrap with LaFalce, she says tersely, "Women."

She was one of the leaders of a famous women's march across the Capitol during the Anita Hill uproar in 1991. She pounded on the door of Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to demand a hearing for Clarence Thomas's young accuser.

She made a notable contribution to another famous dispute. Oliver North and his lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, were making monkeys out of an investigating congressional committee. Flowers for the former Marine were piling up in a Senate office, members were tiptoeing around the spectacle and senators were groveling to North, or bleating on background about his insolence. Slaughter came out and said what needed to be said: "The sight of lawyers shouting at members of Congress is disgraceful."

Slaughter's best friend in Congress was another original, the late Joe Moakley. They sang together in the Rules Committee as they waited for rules to be printed, her Kentucky contralto blending in with his South Boston tenor. Their only disagreement was over the repertory -- she favored gospel, he liked Irish.

Richard Gere told her a long time ago to call him if she desperately needed help. She put in the call last week.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company