Q&A with Ralph Neas
Tuesday, April 21, 1998
Good afternoon and welcome to "Levey Live." Iím Washington Post columnist Bob Levey, your host.
"Levey Live" appears each Tuesday, from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. Itís your chance to talk directly to major news makers and to ranking Washington Post reporters and editors.
Our guest today is Ralph G. Neas, a Democratic candidate for Congress from Marylandís 8th District (Montgomery County).
Mr. Neas is expected to pose a serious challenge to six-term incumbent Republican Connie Morella. He has already raised nearly as much money as Morellaís 1996 opponent, Donald Mooers. Also, he was a Republican himself until 1996. He thinks that will help him in the traditionally independent 8th District.
Ralph Neas is a lawyer, teacher and consultant. He spent 14 years as the executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. He was previously a legislative assistant to former senators Dave Durenberger and Edward Brooke.
Questions and comments for Ralph Neas are welcome throughout the hour.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Why do you think you have a chance of beating such a popular, entrenched candidate?
And why should Montgomery countians vote for you this time?
Ralph Neas: Montgomery County needs a much more aggressive advocate on behalf of its values and its concerns. A progressive Democrat who will consistently stand up to the right-wing Congress whenever it attempts to undermine education, the environment, health care and economic security. I will provide that much-needed vigorous and effective leadership. Connie Morella no longer is able to best represent Montgomery County.
I've read that you yourself were a progressive Republican. How would congressman Neas be different than congresswoman Morella?
Ralph Neas: I left the Republican Party because it became the party of Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan and Ralph Reed. Unlike Connie Morella, I could not sign the "Contract With America," vote with all other Republicans against the 1993 Clinton economic package, vote for Newt Gingrich, and all the right-wing committee chairs and especially I could not vote for all those Republican budgets that would adversely affect Montgomery County with respect to education, health care, the environment and economic security.
What is your position on campaign finance reform?
Ralph Neas: I have become an even more passionate supporter of comprehensive campaign finance reform. Our present system is an absolute disgrace, compromising the very integrity of our electoral and governmental processes. Among other things, I support a ban on "soft money," regulation of independent expenditures, and some form of public financing (after certain threshold levels have been reached). Frankly, I do not believe the president should allow Congress to adjourn this year until comprehensive finance reform is enacted into law.
In December, at your first fund-raiser, you collected $150,000 -- by far the largest amount ever collected by a congressional challenger so soon in a campaign. Many political pros figure you can raise $1 million between now and the general election. What will you do with all that dough? Is dough the way to beat Connie Morella?
Ralph Neas: Having to raise that much money underscores my support for campaign finance reform. However, recent history indicates that for a congressional challenger to win, that challenger must raise on the average at least $800,000. In significant measure, the exorbitant cost of media accounts for this amount. Thanks to extraordinary enthusiasm among the citizens of Montgomery County, we have been raising money at a pace that will allow us to raise that much.
It is important to note that Connie Morella, on the average, outspends her Democratic challengers by $325,000 per campaign. So one has to raise money in order to make a more level playing field with respect to financial resources.
But, very importantly, while money is important, it's the least important factor in terms of waging a campaign to defeat Connie Morella. Most important is having an exciting campaign of ideas and having an army of volunteers who will give the campaign the time and the effort to make sure that it is successful. Because we have those two elements, I am confident that we will be able to replace Connie Morella in November.
I like the work you've done on behalf of the disabled -- in particular your efforts on the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Why are you so interested in disability rights, and -- more importantly -- what remains to be done?
Thanks. Good luck in November.
Ralph Neas: My interest in disability rights goes back to 1973, when I helped put together the Rehabilitation Act of that year. But most importantly, my passion and commitment goes back to when I had French polio in 1979. For many months, I was totally paralyzed, unable to breathe or move on my own. That long experience made me more aware of some of the challenges that face people with disabilities. And I made a commitment that I would do everything within my power to provide a world where equal opportunities existed for persons with disabilities.
What are your plans for Social Security & Medicaid?
Ralph Neas: One reason why I want a Democratic Congress in 1999 is that Social Security and Medicare will be on the agenda. There is no more important priority than successfully resolving the problems that will in the near future beset these programs. We must quickly educate and forge a national consensus on how best to go about these critical tasks. I would do nothing that would endanger the social compacts we have made with the American people on these issues. But we will have to make thoughtful decisions to make sure that those alive today and our children, and our children's children, will be beneficiaries of these programs.
You already have one opponent in the Democratic primary, and you may have others. Worried?
Ralph Neas: To my knowledge, there is one announced opponent for the primary, and of course I look forward to opportunities to debate the issues with him. However, if we are to have a chance to replace Connie Morella this November, it is absolutely essential that I share my positions and my criticisms of the Morella public record as soon as possible. To win, I must continue to recruit an army of volunteers, raise the requisite amount of money, and share the information that the voters of Montgomery County need about me and Connie Morella before the election.
Tell us more about your background and what personal experiences you could bring to Congress. How and why are those experiences pertinent to what you could do for Montgomery County residents?
Ralph Neas: My experience: for eight years I was a senior legislative assistant to two moderate Republican senators on Capitol Hill. After recovering from my long bout with French polio, I became the director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a coalition of 185 national organizations representing women, persons with disabilities, older Americans and minorities. I led dozens of successful bipartisan efforts to strengthen civil rights laws, including the Americans With Disabilities Act.
As a volunteer and as a teacher, I have also worked in this area to serve children at risk, as well as others who have come down French polio.
Half an hour remaining with our guest, Maryland congressional candidate Ralph G. Neas.
Are you disabled as a result of your bout with Guillain-Barre Syndrome in 1979?
Ralph Neas: After a year's rehabilitation, I fully recovered from my battle with French polio (Guillain-Barre Syndrome). I then co-founded an international foundation which now has 18,000 former patients in 150 chapters around the world. We provide support, research, and advocacy.
As a former Montgomery County resident now living in Providence, R.I., I am always astonished by the exponential amount of suburban growth the county has been experiencing. While this may reflect economic vitality, I wonder what you see as the environmental costs, if any, of such "progress."
Ralph Neas: In my thousands of discussions with Montgomery County citizens, the quality of life issue comes up more often than any other. There is true fear about the dangers of explosive growth in the county, which would endanger the environment, make the traffic congestion even worse, and make the county a much less pleasant place to live. It is imperative that while we have continued economic growth, that growth must be managed in the most careful way, especially taking into consideration environmental risk.
While you were head of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, you were ripped by Marlin Fitzwater, President Reagan's spokesman, as having a "liberal political agenda" and being "out of touch with mainstream America." Any comment?
Ralph Neas: My friend Marlin Fitzwater sometimes forgot during those years that I was a progressive Republican. He also ignored the fact that all of those civil rights laws that I helped enact passed with an average of 85 percent bipartisan majorities. On those disputed issues between me and the Reagan White House, it was the Reagan White House that had an arch-conservative agenda and was out of touch with mainstream America.
The 185-organization coalition that I led had 65 million Americans who paid dues to those organizations.
Will the Democratic National Committee help you with money and support? Does the DNC consider your race winnable?
Ralph Neas: I am very pleased that the Neas-Morella race has already been ranked by the Cook Political Report as one of the top 50 most competitive races in the country. I am also pleased that the local state and national Democrats have been so supportive. Indeed, just two weeks ago, [Democratic congressmen] Dick Gephardt, Barbara Kennelly, Steny Hoyer, Ben Cardin and Elijah Cummings held a national fund-raiser for me. Earlier, Sen. [Edward] Kennedy held a fund-raiser for me in Bethesda that raised more money than any previous Democratic challenger has ever raised at one event.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Federal salaries have lagged behind the mandated 'market' increases that were supposed to go into effect years ago. Where do you stand on the issue of federal pay increases?
Ralph Neas: The comparability law that was enacted in 1990 should be in full force today. It is absolutely essential that we begin to rectify the serious pay inequities affecting our federal employees. We must immediately amend the proposed 3.1 percent increase and begin to make up the lost ground that has characterized the past decade. I fully support fair federal pay increases as soon as possible.
Silver Spring, Md.:
So far, you are sounding very much like your opponent: [a] supporter for campaign finance reform, disability rights, education and environment.
The only difference I can see so far is that you are looking to replace an incumbent with standing who is a member of the majority party and who is otherwise very similar to yourself.
How can you account for that?
Ralph Neas: There is a world of difference between Ralph Neas and Connie Morella on at least two levels. First, substantively, I would never have signed the "Contract with America," voted against the 1993 Clinton economic package, and especially, voted for virtually every Republican budget that harms Montgomery County and the nation.
But secondly, and very importantly, I want to be a champion for Montgomery County on education issues, environmental issues, health care and economic security issues. It is not enough to occasionally vote the right way and just show up. We need energetic, effective and consistent leadership. We don't have that now.
Democratic candidates in Maryland are hardly assured of success. Gov. [Parris] Glendening may not get the endorsements of several key Democratic leaders, and may not win re-election even if he gets the Democratic nomination. At the same time, Sen. Barbara Mikulski seems assured of easy re-election. How does all this variation within the Democratic Party affect your chances?
Ralph Neas: Over the past six months, I have been especially pleased by the strong support that I have received from Democrats at all levels. Time and again, publicly and privately, they have done as much as possible to underscore the importance and the winnability of my campaign. And as a natural coalition-builder, I will do everything possible to work with the Democratic primary winners to ensure Democratic victories in November at every level.
Although I am not from your state, I would like to ask your opinion: Instead of making a new law about teen smoking, why not enforce the laws we now have on the books and punish those who sell tobacco to teens and the teens that are caught smoking?
Ralph Neas: Regrettably, existing laws about teen smoking have not worked well. I believe there is a strong national consensus that we must strengthen our anti-smoking laws, especially with respect to discouraging teen smoking here and abroad. And I would add that the enforcement mechanisms must be as tough as possible. I can think of no more important issue that I would like to address as a member of Congress.
Montgomery County is more diverse racially than ever before. Affirmative action has never been a major issue there. But it might become major some day. How would you like to see affirmative action play out in the 8th District if you win in November?
Ralph Neas: Montgomery County, contrary to what some may think, has become an extremely diverse county. Indeed, nearly 30 percent of the county is comprised of minorities. Affirmative action is, and has actually been for a long time, an important issue in Montgomery County. To ensure equality of opportunity, especially in education and employment, affirmative action properly implemented must remain an option. I have worked hundreds of hours with President Clinton and his administration to make sure that our nation adopts a "Mend it, don't end it" approach.
What do you believe is Ms. Morella's greatest weakness?
Ralph Neas: Since the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, Rep. Connie Morella, while still a good and decent person, has become a remarkably different legislator. She helps keep the right wing in power, and she herself has been forced dramatically to the right on a host of issues. So often, on an important vote, one has to hold one's breath or cross one's fingers hoping that she will do the right thing. We need much more decisive, effective, energetic leadership.
That's it for today. Many thanks to our guest, Maryland congressional candidate Ralph G. Neas. Be sure to join us next Tuesday when our guest will be Steve Harlan, a member of the D.C. control board.
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