A Well-Mannered Fox Hunt Is On In Suburban Philadelphia
By Justin Pritchard
First installment of an occasional series on politically moderate Democrats and Republicans and their campaigns for House seats in the November election.
NORRISTOWN, Pa. It was not unusual to see Rep. Jon Fox, R-Pa., glad-handing his way about the lobby of the Normandy Farms Estates home for the elderly. Senior citizens' issues are among his highest policy priorities and he had already visited another seniors’ complex earlier in the day.
But Fox had an unusual present for his constituents: an anxiously awaited traffic signal, the solution to the perilous exit from their complex onto a well-traveled road.
It was the stuff of township or perhaps state-level politics. But Fox is a quintessential local politician appearing on a bigger stage and as a second-term House Republican whose 84-vote victory in 1996 was the nation's closest margin, he needs all the support he can muster.
"It took more than nine months for this baby," he joked about his quest for the light. Then a Normandy Farms resident and supporter approached him, took the microphone, and delivered an endorsement and a personal campaign donation.
"That's not necessary," Fox smiled, accepting the envelope and then moving out to work the crowd.
One chief reason is the competition.
Montgomery County Councilman Joe Hoeffel came up a busload of votes short in 1996, and his rematch run this year is better financed and better supported by the national Democratic Party. In contrast, the incumbent has not fully fortified his position in a GOP majority district that is strikingly diverse, with cities like Norristown that are Pennsylvania's gateway to the Rust Belt, and the Main Line, America's font of old-money blue blood.
"He certainly pays attention to the district," Hoeffel said of Fox, "but even that which is his claim to fame is a double-edged sword he overpromises."
And that leads Hoeffel into his central campaign theme, repeated to anyone who spares a minute, that Fox flip flops on issues so many times he might as well be a gymnast.
"I don't think Jon has a deep grasp on policy issues. He wants to help people," says Hoeffel. "He does great until he has to start voting."
The latest manifestation of this tendency, Hoeffel submits, are Fox's votes for both the Democratic and Republican patient rights bills in July making Fox one of only eight members to support both. True, Fox concedes, the two bills were at odds in some ways, but since the goal was managed care reform, passing one was better than killing both.
"It's certainly a challenge to try to assimilate and do what's best for a majority of people," said Fox. He said the health vote did not meet his definition of a flip flop: "It's a flip flop when you say you're against something and then you vote for it."
And he should know.
In 1994, Fox himself leveled the backtracking charge against then-incumbent Democrat Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, whose tie-breaking vote boosted the 1993 Clinton budget but contradicted her promise to oppose the package.
That vote still resonates in the district, if an encounter between Hoeffel and one Main Line couple is any indication.
Going door-to-door around dinnertime in leafy Lower Merion Township, a Republican doctor and his wife detained Hoeffel to hash out Margolies-Mezvinsky's "disingenuous" about-face.
"On the merits, she did the right thing," Hoeffel responded, but he agreed that Margolies-Mezvinsky should not have changed her mind under pressure from Democratic partisans. The couple nodded and thanked him for being "a viable alternative to Jon Fox."
As he walks back into a street lined by setback fieldstone houses and verdant lawns, Hoeffel is asked whether being a "viable alternative" is enough to sway the race.
"Yeah, I think it's enough," he responds.
A viable campaign fund will also help. Hoeffel was outspent about two-to-one in 1996, but this year it looks like each candidate will spend about $600,000 between Labor Day and Nov. 10. (A cameo appearance in the district by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., hasn't hurt, and Hoeffel expects Vice President Al Gore to visit.)
On the other side, a strong GOP ballot headlined by popular Gov. Tom Ridge and Sen. Arlen Specter, who are running for re-election should help Fox. But a wildcard is Libertarian candidate Patrick Burke, who will likely garner about 5 percent of the vote in the House race.
Hoeffel's polling suggests he is in a stronger position now than the last go round. In July 1996, Hoeffel trailed Fox by 18 points. But in surveys taken this July, according to Hoeffel literature, the difference has narrowed to five points.
While it appears Fox will not face an advertising onslaught from organized labor as he did in 1996, other interest groups will take their shots. Although a professed pro-choice lawmaker, national abortion rights groups are sufficiently unimpressed with his commitment on the issue that they promise an organized vote hunt with Fox's House seat as the trophy.
Fox says he wants to uphold Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, but does not want to spend federal money to support providers of the procedure. In the key vote on abortion during his service in the House, Fox voted to override President Clinton's veto of legislation that would ban the so-called partial birth abortion procedure.
Groups like the National Abortion And Reproductive Rights Action League are working to help replace Fox with Hoeffel, who gained their endorsement.
"His [Fox's] claim to be moderate and pro-choice is not accurate he's voted against a woman's reproductive choice consistently,” said Gloria Totten, NARAL's political director. Totten cited Fox's votes against international family planning programs and to prevent women in the military from receiving abortion services on military bases, even if the woman pays for the procedure herself.
Signaling their disapproval of Fox's stance on abortion, the group gave Fox a 6 percent approval rating in 1997.
"Fox relies on the votes of Republican moderate women whom he's betrayed in his time in Congress it's time to get the word out," she added.
Totten said NARAL will "rain" the district with mailings and phone calls to defeat Fox, targeting their efforts at about 15,000 swing voters, mostly GOP and independent women. She also promised the group will unleash a grassroots get-out-the-vote effort closer to election day.
"This is one of the top races in the country for us the choice issue could be decisive in this district," Totten said.
But so far, even the usually hot-button issue of abortion has yet to generate too much heat with district voters. And despite the escalating rhetoric of the campaign, this is not a classic bare-knuckled fight. That's at least in part because they worked together as Montgomery County Councilmen in the early 1990s, and they developed enough mutual respect to keep their campaigns respectable.
Indeed, when each half-heartedly hurls mud at the other, it seems not to stick. Fox calls Hoeffel a "liberal, tax-and-spend" Democrat, an old saw that Hoeffel says doesn't cut very deeply. Hoeffel counters that Fox thought the Contract with America was "the best thing since night baseball," though Fox has also helped to moderate House GOP leaders positions on high-profile issues like managed health care.
While their outward similarities run from the predictable (both campaign at strip malls) to the coincidental (both drive mini-vans), differences emerge on policy questions.
Every vote Fox takes seems to wind somehow back to his district. He says concern for constituent health care made him vote for both managed care bills. His personal legislative accomplishments this session include $42 million in local transportation aid and continued defense of funds for the Legal Services Corp., which provides legal aid to the poor.
The Legal Services effort is particularly instructive of the moderate line Fox trots. He says that his work as an erstwhile prosecutor convinced him that many citizens lack competent counsel, but he also notes that his effort reflects "the needs of Montgomery County." If the House GOP leadership had succeeded in its plan to cut the program by $141 million, the organization would have had to close one of two offices in his district.
For his part, Hoeffel campaigns for national academic standards and school testing as well as managed care choice. He also wants to address predicted shortfalls in the Social Security trust fund. He is also concerned with international issues and criticizes a "fortress America" syndrome that he says has stymied President Clinton's call for a $17.9 billion commitment to the International Monetary Fund.
The question of IMF funds came before the House Banking Committee March 5 and Fox missed most of the votes, including final passage.
But in Montgomery County, the IMF doesn't have the appeal of a traffic light.
LEGI-SLATE News Service Reporter Katherine E. Harris and Kevin Tunks, a LEGI-SLATE researcher, assisted with this article.
© Copyright 1998 LEGI-SLATE News Service