Labor Targets Ally Who Crossed Line
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 1999; Page A1
HAMBURG, N.Y. Rep. Jack Quinn (N.Y.) is probably organized labor's best Republican friend in the House of Representatives.
He was once a union steelworker, and then a union teacher. He served as picket chairman when his local went on strike at the Orchard Park public schools. He has bucked his party's leaders on almost every major labor vote since he was elected to Congress in 1992, opposing the NAFTA free trade pact, supporting family and medical leave, spearheading the drive to raise the minimum wage. He chairs the party's labor task force. He's spoken at labor conventions. He was even named an AFL-CIO Man of the Year.
But now labor leaders in the Buffalo area have declared war on Quinn, and Democratic officials are calling him the most vulnerable Republican in the nation. Sure, they say, Quinn is a great guy, and a usually reliable union vote. But in December, he voted to impeach President Clinton. He did so even though he considered the president a friend, even though he represents the most heavily Democratic district of any House Republican, and even though he had publicly opposed impeachment during his reelection campaign. In fact, some people believe his change of heart clinched the House impeachment vote; once he came out against the president, a flood of undecided GOP moderates quickly followed his lead.
"We thought he was a friend of ours. We really, really did," sighed John Kaczorowski, president of the local AFL-CIO council and a member of Quinn's labor round table. "Let me tell you something: We won't forget this in two years."
No one knows how impeachment will affect the elections that are more than 20 months away, but Quinn is already feeling the backlash. Organized labor held an anti-Quinn protest the day of his vote, handing out "Impeach Quinn" bumper stickers. Clinton pointedly snubbed Quinn's outstretched hand after delivering his State of the Union address and even more pointedly flew to Buffalo the next day for a huge rally in Quinn's district.
Behind the scenes at the rally, Hillary Rodham Clinton asked several local Democrats about Quinn's prospects in 2000 and promised to campaign for whoever faced him. A local group of Irish American Democrats took out a biting advertisement that day in the Buffalo News: "Bill Clinton is the best friend Ireland ever had in the White House. Jack Quinn is the Irish American who voted to impeach him."
Since the House vote in December, a dozen potential challengers have approached Erie County Democratic Chairman Steven Pigeon about a possible run against Quinn, and national Democratic leaders have targeted his seat as one of six they need to regain the House. There are two Democrats for every Republican in this faded industrial district, and a poll taken last year found that Quinn's south Buffalo base opposed impeachment 67 percent to 24 percent. That same poll found 80 percent of the area's voters had a favorable opinion of Quinn, but Democrats believe that may change now that he has voted to oust a popular president.
Pigeon gleefully noted that even his own mother, who has voted for Quinn because he seemed so nice, has vowed never to support him again. "He's as responsible as anyone for what this country has had to endure," Pigeon said. "Bill Clinton's partly to blame. Ken Starr's partly to blame. But Jack Quinn's got to be up there. He's shown once and for all that when it really matters, the right wing owns his vote."
Quinn, 47, knew he was pinning a bull's-eye on his forehead when he abandoned the president, but he still sounds a bit stunned by the recent attacks. He considers himself the quintessential Republican moderate, an independent thinker who bolted from his party to support summer jobs programs, hate crimes legislation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Clinton crime bill. A letter from Clinton hangs in his office foyer, thanking him for his leadership in rounding up GOP support for the minimum wage hike. He battled House Majority Whip Tom Delay (R-Tex.) over heating aid for the poor and Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) over collective bargaining rights for Amtrak employees.
Now he's suddenly an anti-union lapdog for the Republican right? Quinn does not understand why union leaders can forgive Clinton for taking on the labor movement with NAFTA, but cannot forgive him for concluding that the president lied under oath and obstructed justice.
"It just defies logic," Quinn said in an interview at his home in suburban Hamburg, just a short walk from Lake Erie. "I'm fighting my leadership all the time. I'm with the unions on every labor vote. But this had absolutely nothing to do with labor issues. . . . Are they union leaders first, or are they Democrats first?"
Quinn's father spent 38 years as a union engineer on the rail lines that served Bethlehem Steel, back when the Buffalo area was a major rail hub and a steel producer. Those days are dead, but unions are still the strongest political force around here, and the Democratic Party still has deep roots in a district populated mostly by Polish Americans, Irish Americans and African Americans. Quinn's mother only recently switched over to the Republican Party. So did his wife, Mary Beth, a union nurse.
Blessed with off-the-charts charisma and good looks, Quinn entered politics in the early 1980s, serving on the Hamburg town board and then as town supervisor. In 1992, he ran for Congress and won a surprising victory. He was easily reelected in 1994 and 1998 with the AFL-CIO endorsement, and was narrowly reelected in 1996 without it, taking 55 percent of the vote in his district while GOP presidential nominee Robert J. Dole won 29 percent.
The secret of Quinn's success is no secret at all: People like him. Over the course of more than 30 interviews in Buffalo, "The City of Good Neighbors," and Hamburg, "The Town That Friendship Built," not one voter had anything remotely negative to say about Quinn's personality.
Joan Miller, 58, owner of the Definitely Buffalo store in the city's struggling downtown mall, is a lifelong Democrat and Clinton loyalist. She knows that Quinn had promised as late as Nov. 23 to vote no on impeachment unless new evidence surfaced and had called the Starr investigation "way out of control." But she doesn't blame him for changing his mind a few weeks later.
"I've voted for Jack before, and I'll vote for him again, because I know he has my best interests at heart," Miller said. "I'm sure he voted his conscience, and that's what he's supposed to do."
But others may not be so quick to forgive. Julius Horoszewicz, a 68-year-old cancer researcher who is a registered independent and a Clinton supporter, has voted for Quinn in the past, but he said he won't again. "He really disappointed me," Horoszewicz said. "I always thought he was such a nice man, but right now, I'd like to go dump some garbage on his lawn."
The Clintons apparently feel the same way. The president had forged a close personal relationship with Quinn, working together on labor issues, inviting his family to the White House for picnics and events, even watching the Super Bowl with him at the White House in 1997. Clinton called Quinn from Air Force One 10 days before the impeachment vote, and Quinn gave him no inkling he was wavering. When Quinn announced a week later that he would support three articles, the president was furious. Leading Democrats essentially gave up hope. Eight more undecided Republicans came out for impeachment later that day.
Several labor leaders feel equally betrayed. Gary Kadow, president of the local government workers union, complained in a letter that Quinn had looked him in the eye and assured him he would support censure just two days before he changed his mind.
"The labor community is one angry community right now," said Jim Voye, business manager of the local electricians union. "I always thought public officials were supposed to listen to their constituents."
Now Quinn is shaping up as Public Enemy No. 1 for the Democratic Party. Sources in the party leadership say they believe a handful of moderate Republicans may be vulnerable in 2000 because of their anti-Clinton votes in 1998, including Reps. Michael P. Forbes of New York, Bob Franks of New Jersey, Jay Dickey of Arkansas and Tom Campbell of California. James E. Rogan of California, one of the House managers who prosecuted Clinton in the Senate, is also considered beatable. But none is as juicy a target as Quinn.
"Quinn's got to be at the top of that list," one Democratic source said. "He's in a solid Democratic district, and this will tie him to the Republican right. We had really assumed he'd vote with us on this one."
Quinn has never explained exactly what made him change his mind, and he didn't really clear that up in a two-hour interview. He insisted he was never contacted by the GOP leadership. He said the House Judiciary Committee's factual presentation of the evidence simply made a stronger case for impeachment than the Starr report's pulp fiction narrative, even though it included no new bombshells. The more he studied it, he explained, the more his conscience bugged him.
"It wasn't a single event; it was a gradual process," Quinn said. "It was just a very difficult decision to make. My friendship with the president made it doubly difficult. . . . The good news is, it's over."
Quinn certainly hopes so. He is now reaching out to union leaders, although the local response so far has been frosty. ("Some Republicans would tell them to go to hell in a hand basket," Quinn said. "Not me.") He is working with national union leaders to help resolve the U.S. steel crisis. He hopes to secure federal funding for a highway project in the Buffalo area, and he plans to work with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) on new legislation to restrict land mines. And yes, he is starting to think about the 2000 presidential race.
"I think George W. Bush would be a very attractive candidate," he said. Then he paused. And he grinned. "Of course, if there's one thing I've learned from all this, it's don't commit too early."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company