Challengers say Morella is not 'real' Republican 8th District vet defends her votes against party line

March 03, 1996|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN STAFF

DAMASCUS -- She's been a card-carrying Republican for more than three decades, represented Montgomery County's 8th District for five terms as a GOP member of Congress and has the backing of the state party's hierarchy for re-election.

There's only one problem.

Rep. Constance A. Morella is not a real Republican, say her three primary challengers, standing to her political right.

"I don't believe by her actions she's comfortable with the Republican Party," Barrie S. Ciliberti, a first-term member of the House of Delegates from Gaithersburg, tells the Damascus Republican Women's Club in a staccato burst. "She votes with Clinton more than many Democrats do."

John C. "Rufus" Webb Jr., 67, of Damascus, a perennial candidate, school prayer activist and retired grocery store and bookstore worker, slams Mrs. Morella for believing "in international government, voting to send our armed forces to Bosnia under U.N. command."

There is "disenchantment in the party," says Luis F. Columba, 44, a Silver Spring export-import businessman. "That's why we're here."

But the object of their resentment is not here in the conservative upper reaches of Montgomery, where GOP candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey defeated Parris N. Glendening in the gubernatorial race. She is in Boston caring for her ill mother, leaving her chief of staff Bill Miller to defend her votes for abortion rights and against term limits and welfare overhaul.

"What is a real Republican?" Mrs. Morella asks later, with a laugh, before launching into a GOP roll call: Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, "who started the EPA," and her role model: Maryland's former liberal Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr.

She has the ready and easy laugh of a candidate who has $410,498 in her campaign account and who garnered 70 percent of the vote in the primary two years ago against conservative Arnold Anderjaska, at a time when right-wing Republicans were on the march across the country.

"A Republican is a person who wants government close to the people," instructs the former English professor at Montgomery College. "Entrepreneurship individual liberties."

Although she voted with President Clinton 70 percent of the time -- more than any other Republican -- and voted against House Speaker Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," she brushes aside such facts. Her campaign literature answers for her: "Independent Leadership for Montgomery County."

"I look at each issue according to its merits," she says. "I work hard. People trust me. They may not agree with every vote."

Mr. Ciliberti, seen by party insiders as the strongest primary challenger, hopes enough disagree with her to give him the nomination. On a scale of 1-to-10, he gives his chances a seven.

"There's a core of discontent against Connie. It's built to resentment," says Mr. Ciliberti, 59, a former history professor at Bowie State University who was elected last year with last-minute support from religious conservatives and anti-abortion activists.

But party officials are supporting Mrs. Morella, saying any

candidate more conservative would risk losing the seat to a Democrat. "The party stands behind her 100 percent," says Joyce Lyons Terhes, party chairwoman.

Mrs. Sauerbrey says she does not plan to get involved in a race against an incumbent Republican, although "Barrie's a lot closer to my own political philosophy."

Mr. Ciliberti contends the party stand is not "monolithic," and says he has support among members of the GOP central committee. The northern areas of the district also are growing more conservative, fueled by an influx of residents termed "the Me Generation growing up" by local political commentator Blair Lee.

"They only knew Reagan and the roaring '80s," he says. "There's a growing Republican movement in this county."

During her five House terms, Mrs. Morella, 65, has walked a political fine line as a fiscal conservative and social liberal in this 00 well-educated and wealthy district that largely takes pride in those views. "She's done an excellent job straddling the fence," he says.

Well known for her strong constituent services, the congresswoman has kept close tabs on the twin pillars of the county: federal employees -- who make up a large portion of the 8th District -- and the high-tech companies that line the Route 270 corridor.

She also has carved out a role on women's issues, spearheading legislation that would provide money for a domestic violence hot line and increase penalties for failure to pay child support.

But it is her votes against welfare overhaul and in favor of abortion rights that have irritated some in her party. She was against the House Republican welfare plan because it was "draconian," supporting instead a compromise worked out with the Senate that she termed "much more humane."

Mrs. Morella voted against a ban on what has been known as the "partial-birth abortion," a procedure in which the doctor partially extracts the fetus from the womb and may collapse the head before completing the abortion.

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