Rollins episode in N.J. may hurt GOP, not him ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

November 12, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Last year, when longtime Republican consultant Ed Rollins jumped ship and went to work for the 1992 Ross Perot presidential campaign, the word within party circles was that he was a dead duck. Signing up with a third-party candidate against Republican incumbent George Bush was supposedly the last straw for Rollins, who had run Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election campaign in 1984.

Yet Rollins bounced back on Nov. 2 by directing in New Jersey the upset-victory campaign of Republican Christine Todd TC Whitman over Democratic Gov. Jim Florio -- and Bill Clinton strategist James Carville -- and immediately made himself a desirable political property in the GOP once again.

In the process, however, Rollins demonstrated why he is just as popular among political reporters as he is among many within his own party's ranks. He went to a press breakfast and told the dumbstruck assemblage that an element in Whitman's success was the paying of as much as half a million dollars in "walking around money" to black ministers in return for their not touting Florio from their pulpits, and to certain Democratic workers not to turn out voters on Election Day. Florio won 75 percent of the black vote, but that was a drop-off from the customary 90 percent Democrats usually enjoy in the state, and black turnout was low.

There's nothing unusual for what is also called "street money" to be paid to workers -- and, yes, occasionally, men of the cloth -- to get out the vote for a particular candidate. But paying them to discourage voting, as Rollins said was done, is quite another thing, and possibly illegal. The Whitman campaign denied any knowledge of such activity -- and the defeated Florio campaign screamed bloody murder, whereupon Rollins recanted, sort of, saying his remarks were "an exaggeration that turned out to be inaccurate," a description of something "that was not true and did not occur."

For Rollins, it was just another case of characteristic candor that has made many fellow Republicans as wary of having him in their employ as did his temporary defection to Ross Perot last year.

Rollins insisted at that time that he wasn't leaving the party, just Bush, with whom he had had some serious run-ins, culminating in his advice to Republican congressional incumbents seeking re-election in 1990 to distance themselves from Bush after he had broken his "no new taxes" pledge. Rollins was director of the National Republican Congressional Committee and Bush tried to get him fired, but he refused to go and worked to limit the damage of Bush's reneged pledge in the 1990 House races.

Even before that, in 1988, Rollins was persona non grata with Bush after he openly denounced then Vice President Bush's choice of Dan Quayle as his running mate, telling all who asked him on the floor of the Republican National Convention in New Orleans that Quayle was a lightweight and his selection a disaster.

When Perot first took himself out of the presidential campaign in July 1992, Rollins' decision to work for him seemed particular folly, leaving Rollins high and dry for the moment. He had quickly discovered that Perot had no use for political professionals, resented their presence and refused to listen to their advice, even as the polls showed him dropping in the wake of disclosures of various Perot business deals and personal quirks.

Rollins said later that Perot had offered him a large chunk of money if he would agree not to say anything publicly about the Perot campaign, but that he had refused. Asking Ed Rollins not to say what was on his mind was like asking Perot himself not to talk in sound bites.

So Rollins finds himself in the GOP doghouse again. The "street money" caper is reminiscent of Republican efforts in Louisiana in 1986 to suppress the black vote by sending official-looking letters to black voters warning of the penalties for vote fraud, and of attempts to intimidate black voters in 1981 in New Jersey by assigning menacing-looking "ballot security" guards at polling places.

For a party that has sought and failed for years to win acceptance among black voters, this episode will be another GOP setback. But don't count out Ed Rollins, who has demonstrated a resilience to match his candor.

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