WASHINGTON – After more than a year in the conservative 104th House, Rep. Constance Morella maintains her identity as a middle-of-the-road Republican.
“I’m more centrist and I think that’s where the American people are,” said Morella, 64, of Bethesda, who represents much of Montgomery County.
Morella’s moderate-to-liberal reputation was questioned by some when last January she signed the Republicans’ “Contract with America,” a plan that included sweeping social changes.
Morella said she signed the contract not because she supported all of the items, but because she supported bringing the debate to the floor. “Americans don’t want bills to be hidden in committee,” she said.
A Congressional Quarterly review of her votes showed she supported House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the contract provisions 68 percent of the time – less than any other House Republican.
Eric Uslaner, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said although Morella is still one of the least loyal Republican House members, she has moved to become much more supportive of her party’s agenda.
For instance, she supported President Clinton with 76 percent of her votes in 1994, and with only 58 percent in 1995.
This was inevitable, Uslaner said, “because it is very uncomfortable being so far out of line with her party, and the Republican Party in the House has put very strong pressure on its members to tow the party line.”
Since her first election to the House in 1986, Morella has distinguished herself from the Republican Party, in part, by championing women’s and social issues.
In the 102nd Congress, Morella sponsored three successful bills related to women: to assist employers to recruit, train and retain women in jobs traditionally held by men; to increase the use of expert testimony in trials of battered women charged with killing their abusers; and to provide training for judges and court personnel on child custody in situations of domestic violence.
“I believe very strongly in the equality of women in all issues,” said Morella, a strong supporter of abortion rights.
In 1993, Morella voted against a bill to require parental notification of minors’ abortions. In 1994, she voted for a bill to safeguard access to abortion clinics. And in November 1995, she voted not to ban “partial-birth abortions,” a rare and controversial type of abortion that is usually only performed in cases of severe fetal deformity or when the mother’s life is in danger.
Morella said although she is “pro-choice” on issues of abortion, family planning also must be available.
“I feel that if you want to stop abortion and curtail it, then you have to offer family planning” and social services, Morella said. “A woman makes the decision and government helps to offer alternatives,” she said.
February marked the opening of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a national toll-free hotline to assist victims of domestic violence. Morella introduced legislation for the hotline in 1993.
She has also been consistently out of step with the GOP leadership on environmental issues. In 1995, she voted against easing federal water pollution control regulations. In 1993, she voted to increase mining fees on federal lands.
The League of Conservation Voters, in its environmental scorecard, gave Morella a score of 92 for 1995 votes. This means she voted in line with LCV, a national bipartisan organization, 92 percent of the time. She scored higher than any other Maryland House Republican.
Morella’s liberal Republican style is well suited to Montgomery County, said Maryland Republican Party Chairwoman Joyce Lyons Terhes.
“She is honest and up front in saying, `This is what I believe in,’ ” Terhes said.
Terhes said she has seen no changes or inconsistencies in Morella’s words or actions.
“She is a reflection of the majority of constituents she represents in her county,” Terhes said.
Freshman state Del. Barrie S. Ciliberti, one of Morella’s Republican primary challengers, disagrees.
“She’s out of step with the new revolutionary Republican Party and partly, I think, she’s out of step with the people of the 8th Congressional,” said Ciliberti, 59, of Gaithersburg.
He added, “Voting 70 percent of the time with Bill Clinton is not my idea of independence.”
Neither Terhes nor Uslaner believe Morella is in any danger of being unseated in the 1996 elections. However, Democrats are saying otherwise.
“Being a member of the ruling party of the Congress that is the most ineffective in 50 years will hurt her,” said David Paulson, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.
“She has a vibrant Democratic Party in that county that is going to pounce,” Paulson said.
Fourteen challengers are competing in the March 5 primaries.
Morella’s other Republican challengers are Luis F. Columba, 44, a businessman from Rockville; and John C. Webb Jr., 67, a retired grocery and bookstore worker from Gaithersburg.
Democratic challengers are Mignon Bush Davis, 46, a housewife from Gaithersburg; George Thomas English Jr., 56, a retired federal worker from Silver Spring; John J. Garrity Jr., 35, a grocery store worker from Germantown; Michael Ibanez, 36, a teacher from Gaithersburg; Dennis Ketterer, 40, a corporate executive from Darnestown; Charlotte M. Meyer, 41, a pollster from Rockville; Donald Mooers, 35, a former State Department official from Kensington; Lih Y. Young, 54, an economist from Potomac; and Ralph Shur, 43, a cashier from Germantown.
There are also two challengers from the Maryland Libertarian Party: Bob Creager, 46, a senior corporate staff member from Burtonsville; and Terry Atwood, 45, an engineer from Bethesda.