Vulnerable Democrats Go Home to Face Music
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 13, 1998; Page A1
Dread flashed across Rep. James H. Maloney's clear green eyes as Serge Battaglia grabbed his shoulder and said, "What you did last week, how you voted on the impeachment. ..."
It seemed like forever before Battaglia reared back as if to slam the congressman with a roundhouse punch, then delivered an okay sign and a Columbus Day hug, an abrazzo.
Maloney, a Democrat fighting for a second term in western Connecticut, laughed with relief. Under attack from an energetic young conservative challenger who has called on the president to resign, Maloney is one of 31 Democrats who broke with his party and supported the Republican approach to an impeachment inquiry.
Over in southern Ohio, another vulnerable Democrat, Rep. Ted Strickland, found voters just as supportive. The difference was that he had joined most Democrats last Thursday in opposing the GOP's impeachment measure.
Democrats, who are worried about the impact of the president's troubles on their electoral performance next month, could take some comfort from the warm receptions. Eager to prevent a runaway impeachment train, the party is struggling to keep the GOP from large gains beyond its 11-seat majority.
After their first vote on the impeachment process, the most vulnerable of House members swallowed hard and went home to face the music at Columbus Day gatherings.
Maloney, who still calls himself a "Clinton Democrat" without a hint of irony, yesterday explained to voters how he struggled with his internal compass and his political thermometer, weighing morality and electoral dynamics before casting his lot for the moment, at least with Clinton's foes.
Strickland who has been voted in, then out, then back into Congress in the last three elections offered a simpler explanation for his vote for the Democrats' restricted, time-limited inquiry: He took a poll.
Likely voters in his district, given four choices, lined up like this: Eleven percent favored impeachment, 30 percent thought Clinton should resign, 28 percent wanted some punishment short of Clinton leaving office and 28 percent wanted Congress to drop the whole matter.
Strickland's decision, therefore, "was not a particularly courageous vote," he said. It was not "one of those votes where I agonized and had a lot of fear attached to it. I felt very peaceful about it leading up to it, during it and afterwards. ... I think I did what my constituents wanted me to do."
Maloney and Strickland are running scared, and very much need to feel they have done what their constituents wanted. Both come from almost evenly split districts. Maloney, a beefy 50-year-old, defeated the GOP incumbent, Gary Franks, in 1996, and now faces a tough challenge from a young state senator, Mark Nielsen. Strickland, 57, the only psychologist in Congress, first won his seat in 1992, lost it in the Republican tide of 1994 and regained it in 1996. His margins of victory and defeat were less than 2 percent.
In both districts, the Republican challenger has called for Clinton's resignation. In both districts, the national GOP campaign apparatus is pumping in money and other support.
And in both districts, Washington's obsession with the impact of the White House scandal is evident: A Sons of Italy flag-raising and macaroni lunch in Derby yesterday drew 37 potential voters and 14 media personnel, most of them national news correspondents.
The real challenge for Maloney and Strickland, as for most politicians these days, is breaking through at all. If people are talking politics, they're bemoaning Congress's inability to do anything about the practices of health maintenance organizations.
The TV news shows in Connecticut yesterday led with a report on the abundance of jobs available statewide, "a mother's efforts to keep her daughter's dream alive" by selling T-shirts in memory of her slain child, and the latest on the federal budget row. Not a word about scandal or elections.
The same was true of the state's newspapers the pope's 20 years of leadership, the story behind the suicide of David Letterman's stalker, a bit of budget news. No Clinton, no Lewinsky, no campaign.
Despite his dramatic split with his party he even spurned a last-minute invitation to join other Democratic freshmen for a pep talk from first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton before Thursday's vote Maloney said he is inclined to call the impact of his vote a wash.
"The Clinton situation certainly complicates the dynamic of this election, because this issue cuts across party lines," he said over coffee at a diner in Seymour. "There are Democrats who are furious at me and Democrats who are extremely supportive, and Republicans are split the same way."
Battaglia, who met Maloney yesterday at the Sons of Italy flag-raising outside the Amerigo Vespucci Lodge in Danbury, said he was proud of his congressman for "having the guts to do what's right, not party nonsense, but doing what he believes in." That said, Battaglia, like most of those interviewed in Connecticut and Ohio, wanted his representative above all to move on, to find a way to get past anything connected to the word Monica.
What mattered most to the voters was not how their House member had voted on the impeachment inquiry, but how to relieve the nation of what many called a distraction. If Maloney and Strickland had come home expecting loud protests, Columbus Day actually brought few blares of outrage, but rather a low-level grumbling, a groan of exhaustion.
"I'm sure there are some deep-rooted Democrats to whom Jim will have to explain what he did," said Danbury Mayor Gene Eriquez, "but people aren't focusing on that. They're worried about how to care for their parents and all they see is politicians being diverted by what the president did."
Broad inquiry or limited, set a deadline or leave it open-ended wrong questions! At the flag-raising in Danbury, or at a bluegrass fund-raiser in Piketon, Ohio, voters laid it out for their representatives.
First, the simple part: They don't like what Clinton did. They especially don't like how he dissembles and deceives.
Then, the contradiction: They want this all to go away. But, like the audience in Hollywood's "The Truman Show," they cannot stop themselves from wondering, "How will it end?"
"How many times can you open the television and hear this Monica Lewinsky, Monica Lewinsky?" asked an exasperated Tonina Chieffalo, a Danbury woman who came out to hear Maloney on a crisp New England morning. "Impeachment would bring our country down. Just reprimand the man and tell him to forget about his needs for a while."
Despite her opposition to impeachment, Chieffalo said she was proud of her congressman. Breaking with the party bosses showed courage, she said. Others seemed almost thrilled that a politician had made a decision without convening focus groups or gathering poll results.
"I hate to say it, but this is probably going to save Maloney's life," said Joe Cassetti, a Republican alderman in Ansonia. "He put himself on the same page as his opponent, and he did the right thing."
Strickland said it was indeed polling that persuaded some of the 31 Democrats who jumped ship that they ought to recognize the pro-impeachment sentiment of their constituents.
In Strickland's case, his Republican opponent, Ohio Lt. Gov. Nancy Hollister, has called for Clinton's resignation but otherwise has not injected the Lewinsky matter into the campaign. But Strickland has heard reports that the National Republican Congressional Committee plans to spend as much as $2 million trying to defeat him in his conservative-leaning district. He and Maloney both fret that the GOP message may be a harsh attempt to link them with Clinton's misbehavior.
In the meantime, all Strickland can do is try to campaign amid the chaos that accompanies the final days of a Congress. He arrived back in the district Saturday night, too late for one campaign event but just in time to attend a Democratic dinner in Jackson County. Yesterday, he had to cancel a scheduled news conference with Education Secretary Richard W. Riley because Riley's flight from Washington was delayed and Strickland needed to return to Washington for House votes last evening.
But if he was looking for evidence that Democratic enthusiasm has not been depressed by Clinton's troubles, he found it at a fund-raiser Sunday in Piketon. The featured attraction was Ann Richards, the colorful former governor of Texas who is crisscrossing the country trying to help embattled Democrats. While the Red Brush Band played bluegrass melodies, she and Strickland stood for more than an hour shaking hands with about 300 people.
Only one person, a woman who thanked him for his vote, mentioned the impeachment inquiry, Strickland said later.
Richards, beloved by many Democrats for her saucy tongue, did not disappoint the partisan audience. "It took the right wing and a blank check from Congress to produce a tawdry, cheap, pathetic story about sex," she said of the Lewinsky scandal. "I've said Bill Clinton is not the first man I've had to forgive and he won't be the last."
Audience sentiment was similar. Joan Dearth, 59, a Strickland supporter who is also a Republican, said she is "one of those who believes it is time to stop this investigation. At first I thought there would be no harm in an inquiry, but I can see where it's going to be lengthy and one-sided. I certainly see why [Strickland] voted that way. I don't think it should affect Ted. He's done nothing wrong."
Freel Tackett, 62, a retired chemical worker, said he would have been "thoroughly disappointed" if Strickland had supported the Republican impeachment resolution. "What the president has done is wrong, but we're letting it affect the business of the country," he said. "The Republicans have carried it too far."
"I think we're starting to see some of the backlash," said Ed Dettwiller, Highland County Democratic chairman. "Enough is enough. I feel real good about this election."
At the moment, so does Strickland. But he also remembers 1994, when there was a sharp drop in Democratic turnout, and he knows that remains a threat this year, no matter what his most ardent supporters say. "It's a big district and this is only one little part of it," he said before his speech. "This is a Democratic group. I try to be realistic."
Fisher reported from Connecticut; Walsh from Ohio.
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