Last night, longtime congresswoman Constance A. Morella was simply Connie.
No one asked her what she thinks about the possibility of war in Iraq. Or how she'll vote on the president's budget. For the first time in 24 years in the political limelight, people just wanted to know what she'll do now. And to reassure her that there is life after Congress.
Taking a cue from the former English teacher who constantly quoted Shakespeare in her years on the stump, Morella's son, Paul, took the words of Marc Antony and flipped them. "We come here to praise Connie Morella," he told a packed ballroom at the Indian Springs Country Club in Silver Spring, "not to bury her."
The evening, billed as a tribute to Morella, was as warm and upbeat as Morella was renowned for being during her eight years in the Maryland House of Delegates and 16 in Congress. The tone was set when a video montage of her long career ended with the sassy song "The Best Is Yet to Come," which includes the lyric: "Baby, you ain't seen nothing yet."
"I'm not sure her career is over yet," her friend Mary Yerrick said on the video, and the room erupted in applause.
Longtime Morella staff members said that planning the tribute gave them something to do in the numb weeks after Morella lost the November election to former state senator Chris Van Hollen (D). They figured about 400 people would want to come. But the calls kept coming. The event planners shoved tables onto what was to have been the dance floor. And when the number hit 1,200, they had to start turning people away.
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican who also took on improbable odds but won in November, traveled to Montgomery County fresh from his first State of the State address.
"How can you not like this woman? She is always so happy it makes you sick," he joked about his former House colleague. "What kind of medication is she on? I want some."
Ehrlich, along with Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, began the series of tributes, saying that the first word that came to mind when he thought about Morella was "class."
The next, he said, was "independent." Morella, a liberal-leaning Republican, often caused consternation in her own party when she formed bipartisan coalitions and voted with Democrats on many social issues.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) compared Morella to a monarch butterfly, and said that in some of the most bitter fights in the increasingly conservative Republican caucus, Morella would often take to the microphone and cut to the heart of the matter.
"She could fly through the anger, the arrogance, the partisanship and the politics and alight on every shoulder," he said. "Her presence added mere poetry."
Unlike in the days after the election, there was no grappling for meaning last night.
But Morella's loyalists all knew why they were there. And they all knew whom to blame. Paul Morella even asked Ehrlich if he could use his new powers for "retroactive redistricting."
Morella's fate was sealed when Democrats in Annapolis redrew the lines of the 8th Congressional District, slicing off Republican areas to the north and adding heavily Democratic districts to the east.
As the servers cleared away plates of roast beef and the band struck up "Sentimental Journey," Morella dived into the crowd to shake hands one last time.
Just outside the ballroom, staff members had left index cards for two "memory books." The cards were filled with thanks and sorrow. But perhaps one best summed up the evening and the past 24 years: "What a love affair."