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  • Key Stories: The GOP Leadership Fight

  •   Dunn, GOP's Smooth Referee, Aims for the No. 2 Spot

    Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R/Wash.)
    Rep. Jennifer Dunn is runing for the position of House majority leader. (The Washington Post)
    By Libby Ingrid Copeland
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, November 16, 1998; Page B01

    His Jennifer Dunn comparison is primed and ready to go from the moment he picks up the phone.

    "Think of Margaret Thatcher without the accent and a better wardrobe and a bit more subtlety," says John Carlson, a conservative media commentator and columnist from Washington state.

    Well, better wardrobe, yes. The Washington Republican who aspires to be the first female House majority leader is known for her clothes. Her taste is, as the Seattle Times labeled it, "all designer chic and looking like a million bucks." The Thatcher comparison also might not do justice to the smooth-as-silk charm that the 57-year-old Dunn is renowned for.

    "Very persuasive and very captivating," remarks Rep. Rick White (R-Wash). "She functions particularly well in a male environment which may just be a shade older than I am." That would be 45. "I think they find her attractive."

    But to continue with the comparison, there's the question of the notorious Thatcher will. When the Iron Lady planted her foot, she stayed planted. You knew where she stood for miles around.

    Some of her colleagues will tell you that Jennifer Dunn stands more in the shadows, that she's a peacemaker and a generalist. That she's a touch fuzzy on some issues, like abortion.

    Her supporters say she's sharp and well spoken, the ideal communicator; critics say she's bland, not so good on the nuts and bolts. In the name of communicating Republican principles to women, she has seemed in recent years to stress packaging more than policy.

    "She's kind of one of these people who works a lot behind the scenes," says Rep. Karen Thurman (D-Fla.), who serves on the Ways and Means Committee with the aspiring leader. "She's not one who's on the floor making a lot of noise."

    "She's good in managed settings but not when she's going to get off the [cue] cards," says another congressional colleague who asked not to be identified. "She moved up the line in the House because she was the speaker's person and she was a symbol."

    Dunn was indeed a favorite of Newt Gingrich, ushered into smile-ready position in much the manner as Susan Molinari two years ago. She is the latest to be touted as The Woman to solve the Republicans' "woman problem." Now Dunn -- the chairwoman of her state's Republican Party for 11 years and the current vice chair of the House Republican Conference -- is setting her sights on the No. 2 spot in the House.

    To that end, she's come to embody what she believes is the winning package. This, Dunn hopes, is the most convincing image for the House Republican leadership: sharp, temperate, well spoken, well coiffed and, above all, female.

    The Lady Means Business

    In the late afternoon last Wednesday, after hours of vote-soliciting telephone chats and visits with colleagues, Dunn gets a call from Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), who will almost certainly be the next speaker. He wants a private meeting, just the two of them -- no staffers, no secretaries. She emerges from her office revved and rapid-stepping and infinitely camera-ready in beige and blue.

    Back soon, Dunn promises from the door, directing an air peck at one of her staffers. This, by the way, is no mushy kiss. This is more like a seal, the mark of conversation's end.

    On returning from the 20-minute meeting, she greets a visitor airily: "What a good girl you are for waiting!"

    In the temporary calm of her pale blue office, the congresswoman describes her theory on softening the "edge" and image of her party to appeal to the neglected gender.

    "The problem with this last election is that . . . we missed out on message," Dunn says. "But you also have to have people who are going to be listened to."

    Across the room, Ronald Reagan smiles out from one picture frame, and Reagan Dunn, the younger of her two sons, smiles out from another. Dunn was an early convert to the Revolution; she began working for Reagan in '64, supported his nomination bid against Gerald Ford 12 years later.

    Dunn's politics probably owe much to the influence of her late father, John "Jack" Charles Blackburn, a staunch, outspoken conservative. He was a fishing equipment salesman turned real estate broker who moved his family -- wife, daughter and son -- from Seattle to the growing suburb of Bellevue during a fierce blizzard in 1949.

    "Dad had views," Dunn's brother, John Blackburn, 54, says simply.

    Dunn's ex-husband, Dennis Dunn, whom she divorced in 1977, was also politically minded: He was GOP chairman in the state's large King County.

    Now, less than a week before the vote that decides whether Dunn gets her party's No. 2 job or, quite possibly, nothing -- she is sacrificing her current spot as vice chair -- she is discussing her views on abortion. She rapidly dispenses with her "libertarian" position, which has been the focus of much scrutiny since she stepped into the spotlight. Abortion, she says, should be legal but not federally funded. She opposes "partial-birth" abortions.

    If Dunn's position on this is mixed, it's no wonder -- taking a pro-choice stance in her party is no small feat. Her opponents in this race, Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) and Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), stand firmly against abortion. But late last week, her staffers maintained that Dunn was leading Largent in the race and that Wednesday's vote might not be decisive.

    Abortion "will never be my key issue," Dunn says. What women mainly care about these days, she explains, is fiscal policy -- like tax relief for small business owners.

    "I don't think there's any 'women's issues' anymore," Dunn says. "By the year 2000, women will be running over 50 percent of the world's businesses. . . . Women care about issues in the marketplace."

    Dunn's own issues at this very moment are strictly practical. She needs to convince 112 fellow Republicans that they need her. She needs to convince them that she's enough of a change without being a risk.

    Dunn is a fiscal conservative with a rating of 96 out of a possible 100 with the American Conservative Union for the past year, and a lifetime record of 91. (Hard-righter Largent got a 92 last year, 97 lifetime, according to the lobbying group.) Yet Dunn has developed a reputation as a moderate on social issues, in part by promoting her status as a divorced woman who raised her sons on her own.

    And she has long been known as an ally of Gingrich. He helped Dunn get a plum spot on Ways and Means in her second term; he approved of her plan to focus on closing the gender gap for her party; he occasionally introduced her as the woman who might one day be the first female speaker of the House.

    Dunn's steadfast supporters, like Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.), who pushed her to enter the majority leader race, say the time for Dunn's rise is just right. "I'm looking for diversity," Fowler says. "When you look at the whole leadership, you've got to have better diversity. We've got a great opportunity right now."

    Dunn says future Republican success will be about putting "fresh faces" forward and breaking glass ceilings, she would have you know, is nothing new for her. In sixth grade, she was the very first student body leader -- a girl, no less! She relates this oft-told tidbit with a vague Mona Lisa smile.

    "We're not too many women working in a man's world," she says. But "I've always been good at that."

    'Full Steam Ahead'

    "I don't want her to get the boxing gloves out," says John Blackburn over the phone from Laguna Beach, Calif., and despite his humor and the passage of years, there just might be a vestige of real wariness in his voice as he cautions a reporter to go easy on his description of Jennifer Blackburn Dunn.

    Always, you see, his sister was whupping him good -- outboxing him and outfishing him and just generally being the larger-than-life presence that loves and is loved by success. And John Blackburn was no slouch. He was an athletic kid, already had five letters by the time he asked for a pair of boxing gloves. His father bought a pair for him and a pair for Jennifer.

    "And she knocked me all over the room," Blackburn says. "She just jumped right in and started swinging."

    In youth, Dunn was vigorous, played tennis and softball and skied and waterskied and fished. She won the town trout fishing competition at Coal Creek when she was in elementary school. Her father taught her how to shoot a .22.

    "Just about everything she did," he brother explains, "was full steam ahead."

    She was smart and studied hard. She went to the school proms and fancy dances, had her fair share of dates. She graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor's in English literature and a handful of minors.

    Blackburn says his sister felt her gender acutely at times. "I know that she feels she's had to fight for just about everything she got," he says. "I know that she doesn't feel that she's heard a lot of the time, and that bothers her. She just feels that it's very difficult to command attention sometimes, particularly in Congress."

    One thing she never was interested in, he adds -- "Jen was never the housekeeper type. I used to equate it to not being able to boil water."

    Then Blackburn hesitates, wondering if he should retract that. It's not that she couldn't boil water; just that she never was too keen on cooking.

    Gotta watch out for that killer swing.

    The Right's Referee

    Jennifer Dunn doesn't box much anymore; her supporters say she now functions more like a referee. As Washington's GOP chairwoman she presided over a fractious group of Republicans in a swing state that saw many fortune reversals.

    And she showcased her charm and moxie as a money-raiser and campaigner. During this last election cycle, she raised nearly $1.5 million for her own campaign, and contributed $135,000 to others. She traveled the country to stump for fellow Republican candidates -- to California, New Jersey, Illinois, Utah, Colorado and more, for a total of 30 districts.

    Supporters say her style has a certain empathic, folksy appeal. "She speaks in ways people can understand more intuitively," Rep. White says. "She persuades you logically but also, you know, tugs at their heartstrings a little bit."

    Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), a distant cousin on Dunn's mother's side, says: "She can say to a mother or a family or an elderly woman, 'Here's what we're doing in D.C. and here's how it affects you and here's how it will make your life better.' She doesn't talk in jargon, in inside-the-Beltway jargon."

    "I mean forget about gender -- just compare her television performance to Dick Armey's," says Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Governmental Studies. "I think if Jesse 'The Body' Ventura were serving as referee, he'd stop the fight."

    But you can't forget about gender, nor would Dunn want you to. Gender is her obstacle, but coupled with her articulate style, it is also her selling point.

    "The Republican Party is so male-dominated that it is especially hard for a woman to succeed at higher levels," says Sabato. "They say she's not out in front. Well, if she were out in front, she wouldn't be taken seriously at all in the Republican Party."

    Maybe so, but some in the House wonder about the substance beneath the facade.

    "I really don't know how many people we have in a leadership position who people don't know in each and every issue," says Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who serves on Ways and Means. Dunn, he suggests, may be one of those few.

    "She's not good enough on her feet to run it on the floor," says another colleague. "She's not a Tom Foley, who ran it for Jim Wright, or a Gephardt, who ran it for Tom Foley," he said of the previous Democratic leaders. "She doesn't have the breadth of understanding on the issues."

    "She plays the role of an articulate talking head who's very attractive and poised very well," says Paul Berendt, chairman of the Washington state Democratic Party. "But is this someone who's going to be an inspiration to women voters? I don't think so. Is this someone who's an articulate spokesperson for the core values of the Republican Party that really excites base Republican voters? No."

    But here she is now, all drive and charm, pulling on the gloves. Into the ring again.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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