BETHESDA – Praise for Ralph Neas, a Democrat who is attempting to unseat Rep. Connie Morella, rival the kind found in movie advertisements.
“Neas is the most talented candidate, incumbent or challenger, in the United States of America,” said Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mitchellville.
“Neas has been the 101st Senator for civil rights,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., when Neas resigned as the head of the Leadership Council For Civil Rights.
“He’s going to be one of the saplings who grows up very quickly” in Congress, said Chris Manion, a self-described conservative and former staffer for Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.
But local political pundits aren’t quite ready to schedule Neas’ coronation.
“He’s running against Connie Morella,” said University of Maryland government and politics professor Eric Uslaner. “Unless you can tell me that she’s dying or retiring, I don’t think he has much of a chance.”
Morella has won at least 60 percent of the vote in all five of her re-election campaigns.
But while Neas, 51, has never run for political office, he is no political neophyte. He enters this campaign with a legion of high-profile supporters behind him and a pile of money at his disposal.
Kennedy, Hoyer, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., have helped him raise $332,000 — more than all but one of Morella’s challengers raised for their entire campaigns.
The Cook Political Report gives Neas the best chance of any Maryland challenger for Congress this year. It has lowered Morella’s 8th District from “solid Republican” to “leaning Republican” on the strength of Neas’ candidacy.
“He is not your average challenger,” said Amy Walter, the Cook Report’s editor for House races.
And Neas knows how to campaign. A gregarious man, 5-feet-9 inches tall, with reddish cheeks and curly brown hair over his forehead, he greets people with an eager handshake and listens intently.
“I have never seen him vacillate between happy and sad. He’s always upbeat,” said Paul Wallace of the Congressional Research Service, where Neas worked in the early 1970s. “He recognizes the needs and sufferings of all people, and it comes from the heart.”
Neas speaks with the air of a person who’s been there before, and knows what his message is.
“This progressive Democrat would never have voted for the draconian Republican budgets that have hurt this country again and again,” he said at a fund-raiser. “I will do the right thing rather than the far-right thing.”
He learned the ways of Washington as a staffer for moderate Republicans in the 1970s and put his knowledge to work as executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights from 1981-95.
He was thrust into the national spotlight as the leader of the effort to defeat Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987. And he is viewed as one of the chief architects of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Even Neas’ opponents praise his integrity. Patrick McGuigan, a staunch supporter of Bork’s, admired the way Neas led the opposition campaign.
“I know that at times he said it was not right to demonize the man, we should beat him on the issues,” McGuigan said of Neas work on Bork.
During the campaign for the Americans with Disabilities Act, Neas was one of about five leaders who kept various groups informed, said Becky Ogle, then the legislative director of the Spina Bifida Association.
She said Neas helped rein in radical ideas and who was able to open lines of communication with recalcitrant legislators.
“If we needed someone to go in and talk to Jesse Helms, Ralph would be there,” Ogle said.
The son of Republicans, Neas’ introduction to politics came at Notre Dame in 1968 when he was campus campaign manager for moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential primary bid.
After graduating from University of Chicago law school in 1971, he worked briefly with the Congressional Research Service, then spent eight years as a legislative aide to two moderate Republicans: Massachusetts Sen. Edward W. Brooke and Minnesota Sen. Dave Durenberger.
“I was attracted to Ed Brooke and (former Maryland Sen. Charles) `Mac’ Mathias and that breed of Republican because of their commitment to social justice issues and their very pragmatic approach to government,” he said.
In 1979, Neas was struck by a rare, polio-like disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome. He lay in bed for 155 days. Totally paralyzed for nearly three months, he communicated only with a clucking sound and relied on a respirator to breathe. He eventually recovered fully.
He describes his subsequent tenure at the Leadership Council on Civil Rights as a protracted battle against the Reagan and Bush administrations. But he remained a Republican — in name at least — until 1994.
“What had been the party of Lincoln became the party of Newt Gingrich and Ralph Reed and Pat Buchanan,” he said. “I thought it was not the right place for a moderate Republican.”
But McGuigan said friends got “a great big laugh” when Neas claimed to be a Republican, and today he sounds more like an unreconstructed New Dealer than an erstwhile Republican whose party drifted away from him.
Asked if he could enact one piece of legislation, for example, he said it would be a bill to ensure universal access to health care “and make sure that … it would be to quality care.”
The former Republican is not shy about contrasting his “progressive” positions with Morella, whom he says is much more conservative than her reputation.
“What I don’t think a lot of people know is how Connie Morella as been forced to the right over the last three or four years,” said Neas, who has voted for Morella in the past.
Morella has declined comment, but organizations that rate congressional voting records offer only modest support for Neas’ claims.
The liberal Americans for Democratic Action said Morella voted on its side of major issues 70 percent of the time before the Republican takeover. Since then, her rating dropped to 53 percent, while the average Republican has scored 11 percent.
The American Conservative Union had given Morella an average rating of 26 percent in the six years prior to the takeover. Since then, it has rated her at 25 percent.
Still, Neas says, there are differences.
He would have voted for President Clinton’s budget in 1993. Morella voted against it.
He would have voted against the welfare reform package of 1996. Morella voted against it.
He would have voted against Gingrich as speaker. Morella voted for him in 1995 and was one of five Republicans who voted “present” in 1997. Four other Republicans voted for other candidates.
While Neas says, “I don’t view Connie Morella as Newt Gingrich,” his campaign events seem to present Gingrich as the opponent, not Morella.
“Is it going to be a Gingrich agenda or a Gephardt agenda?” Hoyer asked, noting that a swing of 11 seats would return the House to the Democrats.
But political analysts say Neas’ plan to exploit Morella’s purported shift to the right has been tried before. Uslaner said that Democrat Don Mooers tried it in 1996, “a tough year for Republicans,” and still mustered only 39 percent of the vote.
Furthermore, Neas has an “inside-the-beltway problem,” said Blair Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat and local political columnist. He puts Neas in the ignominious category of Washington “carpetbaggers” who have seen Montgomery County as an “easy mark” to win a congressional seat.
“This has happened decade after decade, and the people of the 8th District see them coming a mile away,” Lee said. “People prefer the local product to these interlopers.”
He points to unsuccessful campaigns in the 1970s by Washington power brokers Tommy Boggs, the son of legendary Louisiana Rep. Hale Boggs, and Frank Mankiewicz, the director of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.
Neas says he is no carpetbagger. He has lived in Montgomery County since 1982 and has been involved as a founder of the local Children’s Charity Foundation and as county liaison of the Guillain-Barre Syndrome Foundation International, of which he is board chairman.
Moreover, Neas says it’s just not fair to saddle him with the dreaded “Washington insider” rap.
“Much of my career has been taking on the establishment with regard to minority rights and disability rights,” he said.
But even if had better local credentials, Lee said, “He’s got a more fundamental problem: he running against Connie.”
The Neas campaign has tried to defuse the “Connie” mystique by giving their candidate a friendly identity of his own. Neas’ staff religiously refers to him as “Ralph” and his campaign materials are emblazoned “Ralph!”
But Lee is skeptical.
“If you say `Connie’ in the 8th District everybody knows who you’re talking about.”