Congress flooded by calls

October 15, 1991|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff Penny Bender and Laurie Ledgard of States News Service contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of Americans are letting lawmakers know what they think of Clarence Thomas before the Senate votes this evening on his nomination to the Supreme Court.

Callers have swamped Capitol Hill and state offices of their representatives in reaction to the sensational Senate hearing into Anita Hill's allegations that Thomas sexually harassed her on the job in the early 1980s.

A survey of several Senate offices found in some cases a majority of callers favored Thomas while in the other cases the calls were evenly divided. No office reported a majority in opposition to Thomas.

Most offices reported public disgust with the way the Judiciary Committee dealt with the allegations.

The calls are consistent with poll findings showing more Americans believe Thomas than believe Hill. That could help Thomas win a Supreme Court seat when the Senate votes. Most senators were prepared to vote for Thomas before Hill's allegations surfaced last week.

AT&T said the volume of calls to congressional offices was three times the normal rate yesterday, even though it was Columbus Day and Congress was not in session.

"It's been incredible," said Tricia Primrose, press secretary to Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "It's almost been impossible to get them answered."

Shelby's office received several hundred calls. But some senators who are members of the committee received several times that number, many from people angry with the committee's handling of Thomas' nomination.

"Since all this began we've probably gotten 5,000 calls," said Dan McKenna, press secretary to Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the former prosecutor who strongly challenged Hill's assertions.

"They're pretty much divided," McKenna said, half for Thomas, halfagainst. When Hill testified, more calls came in supporting her position, but the tide ran the other way when the nominee was speaking.

"I think the people are having a difficult time telling the truth," McKenna said.

Some callers criticized Specter for being too tough with Hill, he said, while others praised his questioning.

Aides to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Md., reported yesterday afternoon that callers to his offices were evenly divided. By day's end, they expected 700 calls.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., closed her offices for the holiday. But outside her door was a stack of Western Union messages waiting to be opened.

Many people even called members of the House of Representatives, although the House has no say on court nominations.

Rubye Kosko flipped through the stack of telephone messages she had taken for Rep. Helen D. Bentley, R-2nd, at her Towson office, and read some aloud: " 'Hill is lying -- Support Thomas. Support Thomas. Support Thomas.' "

Many said they were "outraged" by Hill's accusations against Thomas. A number said they were infuriated by public disclosure of the allegations and would have preferred closed hearings.

"Limit the terms" of senators, one caller said to Kosko. "These people have been in [office] too long."

Callers also told Kosko they were unhappy with Sarbanes and Mikulski, who oppose Thomas' nomination. One caller said he was so embarrassed, "I want to cover my Maryland license plate."

But most calls to Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-8th, were sympathetic to Hill, who came forward after 10 years to accuse Thomas of making graphic sexual statements to her while she worked for him at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

After viewing the committee's grilling of Hill, the callers said they understood "why she never came forward in the first place," an aide to Morella said.

The level of support for Thomas varied widely by office. By 1 p.m. yesterday, aides to Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., said they had tallied 950 calls in support of Thomas and 250 opposed.

Although special interest groups often trigger mass reactions on issues important to them, none of the offices canvassed reported any sign of an organized campaign for or against Thomas.

An aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., said calls were running 2 to 1 in Thomas' favor.

"I would say, prior to this, gun control would be the issue of most concern to Hoosiers," the aide said. "But this leads gun control. I've not seen anything like this in the three years I've been here."

"The most common reaction," said Lugar's press secretary, Kevin Kellens, "was [Hill] lacked credibility in most Hoosier eyes. Following him to a second job, calling occasionally and not bringing the issue up would not be consistent with the degree of harassment she described."

A couple of offices reported men tended to support Thomas more than did women, but staff members at other offices hadn't tracked callers by sex and couldn't say.

Most callers waited until the hearing concluded yesterday to express opinions. Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., received 85 calls Friday, but 608 as of late yesterday: 307 for Thomas, 301 against.

Reflecting the widespread criticism of the confirmation process, most calls to Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., a member of the Judiciary Committee, were critical of the committee, an aide said.

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