Morella holds center, delivers the goods

8th District: Hard to find nationally, liberal Republican is hard to beat in Montgomery

September 25, 2000

CONNIE MORELLA kept the faith and was rewarded. The Grand Old Party came back to her. When the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia pitched its big tent, when nominee George W. Bush went for inclusiveness, when no one said what the hard right demanded, it was clear.

This is not just a party that found a place for Eighth Congressional District Rep. Constance A. Morella, a champion of women's choice, gun control and public schools. This is a party that needs her, especially if Mr. Bush is elected and the Republicans keep control of the House. Her weight on the wing would bring the balance closer to Mr. Bush's center.

This follows years of other people's doubt whether Ms. Morella belonged. Her discomfort began at the 1992 convention, when Pat Buchanan declared cultural war on all sorts of people to whom she had been reaching out.

Then came Newt Gingrich's taking over as speaker of the House after the 1994 election. Ms. Morella, always a true Republican, signed his Contract with America. That was a pledge to get these issues to the floor, she said. There, she voted for some, against others.

People with no institutional memory wondered what Connie Morella was doing in the Republican Party. Smart aleks of the right were heard to mispronounce the n's in her name as m's. Some prominent Democrats didn't understand, either, urging her to come over to their side.

Of course she was a Republican. She always drew fine lines. She is known as one of four Republicans in the House of Representatives to vote against all four articles impeaching President Clinton.

In fact, she voted for the impeachment inquiry, withheld comment, kept everyone guessing, made no effort to influence anyone, and ended the suspense on the floor at roll call.

There was a time - and perhaps it is returning - when Ms. Morella did not have to explain being a Republican, nor did the party for having her.

Constance Albanese grew up the child of immigrants and public schools in the Boston suburb of Somerville, where most people were Democrats. She moved to Washington in 1954 along with her husband, Anthony C. Morella, who was attending law school there.

They lived in an apartment in the District of Columbia for a year, then one in Silver Spring, then rented a house, then built a house in Rockville, where their son and his family now live, and moved in 1971 to their present Bethesda home.

Tony Morella worked for liberal Republicans, including Rep. John V. Lindsay (later mayor of New York), and at one time headed a committee to nominate New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller for president. He became a law partner and lobbyist and began a long association with American University as both law professor and general counsel.

Connie Morella taught English in high school, earned a master's degree from American University and was professor of English at Montgomery College for 16 years. She is a literary person who will quote Fielding or Frost at the drop of a name.

She had three children and, when her sister died of cancer, raised six more. Her introduction to public service was on the Montgomery County Comission for Women. Issues discussed by that panel led her into politics, as a liberal Republican.

This was the Morellas' circle and a Montgomery County tradition. Gilbert Gude, environmental zealot, was the county's liberal Republican member of Congress. Charles McC. Mathias, Maryland's liberal Republican senator from 1969 to 1987, was the friend who convinced Professor Morella to pursue her causes as a politician.

She ran for the Maryland General Assembly in 1974 and lost. She was bitten, ran again in 1978 and won handily.

In Annapolis, she gained a reputation as a liberal on social legislation and a conservative on fiscal matters - so much so she was placed on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Then, in 1986, when the old Gude seat was vacated by Democrat Michael D. Barnes, she went for it - and won by 6,000 votes.

As a Republican concerned about women's and health issues and gun control, Representative Morella strengthened the reputation she had made in the state legislature, while adding a strong national defense to the issues she could be conservative about.

Only after the House Republicans shifted further right in 1995 did she cease to fit in. Yet even then, mainstream Republicans understood she had to be liberal to hold Montgomery County for their party. On the vote that truly matters - Republican control of the House - she always votes with them.

After seven terms, Ms. Morella is an established champion on the Republican side for the issues important to her. A suggestion in a 1995 Washington Post profile questioning her influence in the House provoked an indignant rebuttal from the women's movement.

She delivers for her constituency, using committee assignments for what in earthier parts of the country is called the pork barrel.

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