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'We Just Want This Mess to Go Away'

Impeachment Debate

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  • By Michael Grunwald
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, December 15, 1998; Page A1

    NEW BRITAIN, Conn., Dec. 14 At a recent reception for a Polish veterans group, New Britain's Democratic state senator almost got booed off the dais when he mentioned impeachment. At the New Britain headquarters of Connecticut's staunchly Democratic municipal employees' union, officials haven't yet taken a position on impeachment. The subject didn't even make today's front page of New Britain's newspaper, the Herald, giving way to the Puerto Rican statehood vote, Hanukah, a Mexican parade, the stadium deal for the New England Patriots and a local tutoring program called Kids First.

    "We're all sick of hearing about impeachment," said New Britain's democratic mayor, Lucian Pawlak. "We just want this mess to go away."

    It is clear that most residents of this struggling industrial city have had more than their fill of Monica S. Lewinsky, Kenneth W. Starr, Rep. Henry J. Hyde and the rest of the impeachment cast. But it is equally clear that they are not doing much about it, even though Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), a former New Britain schoolteacher who represents the city in Congress, is still undecided about Thursday's vote.

    The Connecticut Democratic state committee has fielded a flood of calls from angry voters asking to attend demonstrations or march on Washington. In response, it has told them to call their congressmen. But Johnson aides say calls were running two to one for impeachment last week and the gap narrowed only slightly today.

    Johnson's Washington office received several hundred telephone messages as two staff aides spent today fielding calls and logging pro- or anti-impeachment sentiment. "It's 60-40 for impeachment," said David Karvelas, Johnson's chief of staff.

    Johnson, who just returned from a fact-finding trip to New Zealand, could not be reached for comment. But what she faced as she sought to decide on her vote was a constituency uncomfortable with the idea of impeachment and at the same time unmoved to mobilize against it.

    While volunteers from an online "censure and move on" campaign did give Johnson's staff an anti-impeachment petition with more than 600 signatures last month, conversations failed to turn up any signs of a grass-roots movement to keep Clinton in office. Likewise, Democrats here and elsewhere warn that a drawn-out Senate trial may provoke a political backlash against Republicans, but judging from the mood around here, it hasn't happened yet.

    The sixth district in Connecticut is predominantly Democratic, but Johnson was just reelected to her ninth term over her Democratic adversary, Plainville attorney Charlotte Koskoff. Johnson, 63, is respected here for her stubborn independence she is fiscally conservative and pro-choice, the author of a taxpayer bill of rights and a bill to provide health care for uninsured children, endorsed by the Sierra Club and the state teachers' union but this is by no means a safe seat.

    In 1996, Koskoff didn't even have money for television ads, but she still came within 1,587 votes of beating Johnson by hammering away at her treatment of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) in her role as chairwoman of the House ethics committee. Clinton won this district easily that year. While he is looked down on in some of the tonier suburbs of Litchfield County, he is still a popular figure in grimy New Britain, so much so that photographs of Clinton with Johnson appeared in some of her 1998 campaign literature.

    New Britain has fallen on hard times since its glory days as the Hardware Capital of the World Stanley Works is the only major manufacturer still headquartered here, and it has been moving jobs to China but the city is much improved since 1992. The unemployment and poverty rates have plummeted, even though they are still the highest and second-highest in Connecticut, respectively. Crime is also way down; there have only been four murders so far this year.

    "This city is really starting to come back; all of America is coming back," said Joe Vojtila, a meter reader for the local power company. "I say the prez is doing his job. Leave him alone."

    But when Vojtila was asked what he plans to do to make that happen, he bluntly replied: nothing. "I guess I just don't care all that much."

    That was a common refrain in interviews around the city. Erin Joudrey, 23, a child development specialist eating a sandwich at the Good Times deli, said she thinks it is "ludicrous" that a president could lose his job for lying about sex. But she also said that if Clinton can make the issue go away by resigning, he should resign.

    "My only strong emotion is that I don't want to hear any more about it," she said. "I see too many abused and neglected children in this city. How come I never hear anything about that?"

    In Farmington, one of the upscale 350-year-old suburbs that make up much of Johnson's district, residents seemed more disgusted by Clinton's behavior, and more inclined to favor impeachment, but equally tired of the whole ordeal. David Newman, owner of Elite Ski and Sport in Farmington, said the Lewinsky saga has been replaced as Topic A by the stock market on the dinner party circuit and by the weather in his shop.

    "Maybe people will wake up if this all comes to a head," Newman said. "Right now, my customers just want to know when it's going to snow."

    It is hard to predict how this all will affect Johnson. The Democrats and the state chapter of the National Organization for Women have launched anti-impeachment phone and e-mail campaigns; the Republican state committee has not bothered to get involved, but conservative groups on the World Wide Web are pushing the other way.

    Gov. John G. Rowland, another moderate Republican, has spoken out against impeachment, but it is not clear whether Johnson is listening. She is not known for bending to political pressure. Margaret Corey, a homemaker and Republican town committee member who was picking through Belgian endives and escarole lettuce at the Epicure Market in Farmington, said she doubts Johnson's impeachment vote will affect her popularity one way or the other.

    George Blanks, a Democratic retiree who was buying lottery tickets at Jimmy's Smoke Shop in New Britain, said the same thing. Corey supports impeachment because the law is the law; Blanks opposes it because sex is a private matter. But they will both vote for Johnson again in 2000 no matter what she does on Thursday.

    Staff writer Liz Leyden contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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