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Sunday, September 22, 1996

Stenholm: I want to be more than one vote

Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - On Capitol Hill the media hover in search of soundbites, and at the moment a swarm is descending on Charlie Stenholm.

It's late July and President Clinton moments ago announced he'll sign landmark Republican welfare reform.

As the cameras gaze on, Stenholm and Rep. John Tanner of Tennessee - two leaders of the Blue Dog Democrats - announce that after twice opposing the GOP's welfare world view, they'll now back the House-Senate compromise.

That morning, both men had urged Clinton to sign the measure, arguing it addresses several problems in earlier versions and, accurately it turned out, predicting about 100 Democrats would support it, enough to override a presidential veto.

"Despite our reservations, it is vital that welfare reform be enacted this year," Stenholm told reporters. "This compromise is far from perfect, but it's clearly preferable to the current system and preferable to welfare bills considered earlier this Congress."

Or was it really? Stenholm's critics, inside both the D.C. Beltway and the 17th Congressional District, see it as another deft move by an 18-year incumbent who continually straddles the political fence.

"Another example of the Stenholm see-saw," said Republican challenger Rudy Izzard, charging Stenholm sided with his party early on and merely switched his vote after outrage erupted back home. He noted two other conservative Texas Democrats, Ralph Hall and Pete Geren, voted for welfare reform all the way through the process.

Similar charges have been leveled throughout his career. But Stenholm and his supporters say he did on welfare what he's always done: scouted the landscape and tried to make the best of the political situation, so he can make legislation more to his liking and his district's. He calls the result "conservatism with common sense."

By voting against the earlier welfare bill, he argues, he won a seat at the table to negotiate something better. And one motivation, he says, was helping Texas protect elements of its own welfare reform measure. Today he has a hand-written "Dear Charlie" thank-you note from Republican Gov. George Bush to back him up.

And U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw of Florida, the Republican who chaired the committee that produced the welfare reform bill, praised Stenholm's input, both in comments on the House floor and in a letter to his colleague.

"I can tell you honestly that in many instances in which we followed your advice and that of other Blue Dogs, we actually improved the bill," Shaw wrote earlier this month.

Despite occasional fits of frustration, there's no doubt Charles Stenholm loves what he's doing. And the one-time teacher who jumped from cotton farming to Congress harbors big plans if he survives election day.

He hopes Democrats can re-take Congress, making him an almost certain chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, a career dream. He also toys privately with taking another stab at a top House leadership post, after being predictably squashed in his 1994 attempt.

And if Republicans maintain control, he believes his Blue Dog bunch of Southern conservatives will have great influence over the battles ahead. Being at the center of it all was his goal from the beginning, he said.

"I've always wanted to become more than one vote, to be someone who, when other members look up on the board, they see your vote and they'll vote like you do," he said.
Friends and critics agree he's achieved that goal to a degree - for good or for ill, depending on your politics.
It was already chilly Election Night 1994. It got significantly colder the second Stenholm heard the early election returns over his car phone, as he and his wife Cindy drove the highway to Stamford.
He was down 10 percentage points in Abilene, his district's focal point and largest city.

Stenholm would find out later that his family had anticipated the national mood and the historic Republican takeover of Congress. Son Chris and daughter Courtney Ann drove in from Fort Worth and College Station. Son Cary runs the family farm in Stamford. Unknown to Stenholm, they were gathering to support him in case he lost.

He didn't lose, but it was by far the toughest victory of his career. Phil Boone, a persistent political newcomer, won 46 percent of the vote and carried eight counties, Taylor included. Close to half the voters wanted Stenholm out of office.

It shook him, but Stenholm found a pony amid the dung of Democratic defeat: He was one of the few survivors.

"We were down," he told a home health association recently, "until the next morning when we saw what happened nationwide. And then I've been up ever since. We found an upside."

But he lost a lot of his conservative Democratic friends, either in the election or in defections to the Republican Party. Many people figured this was it for Stenholm. Now consigned to the minority, they felt certain he'd either switch parties or call it quits.

He did neither. He ran for House Democratic whip, second highest post in the party's congressional leadership.

Stenholm's quixotic challenge to Michigan Democrat David Bonior, a proud liberal, seemed doomed from the start; he ended up losing 145 to 60. But to Stenholm the November election returns demonstrated the Democratic Party had to move to the right.

Instead of switching, Stenholm stayed on to continue trying to move the party that direction, a feat many Republicans consider equally quixotic and equally doomed. They accuse Stenholm of "playing a game of feint right and fold left."

He has liberal critics as well, though they're quieter in an election year.

"He often votes more conservatively than Phil Gramm, and who needs that in a Democratic Party?" said one Democratic staffer. "We need two distinct parties, not one big Republican one."


Stenholm, elected in 1978, earned his congressional spurs in the early years of the Reagan era, when he quickly became one of the leading conservative Democrats to back the president's 1981 tax cuts.

It's an economic decision he regrets, and one that's since made him dead-set against tax cuts before the budget is balanced. But it was also his first taste of helping to lead a coalition, and of communicating with the White House. Succeeding administrations have welcomed his ability to count and find votes.

Ken Duberstein, who was congressional liason for Reagan and eventually became White House chief of staff, said Stenholm was a quiet catalyst for making the Southern Democrats an instrumental force in those years.

"While Phil Gramm and Kent Hance had their names attached to the legislation, Charlie was more interested in getting things done right," said Duberstein, now consultant and advisor to Colin Powell and, at times, Bob Dole.

He agrees both parties have, more recently, been frustrated with Stenholm, "not sure which camp he's in or where he's coming from.

"But I always kind of thought Charlie was coming from West Texas, and that maybe the country itself is of two minds: Of course they want to balance the budget, but they also want some essential services provided by the federal government.

"Charlie's about governing, not just making a statement," he said. "He doesn't always just opt for the most popular thing to say, but what he thinks need to be done. Maybe what Charlie Stenholm is about is getting away from political labels."


As many a reporter who has followed a congressman learns, a member's day is marked by hurried walks through the Capitol Hill tunnels, racing back and forth to committee meetings, office appointments, votes in the House, caucus gatherings, all of which may be delayed, moved forward or forsaken totally.

The Stenholms live in north Arlington, Va., several miles from the Capitol complex. As with most in Congress, an early evening is getting home at 9 p.m.; a late morning is being at the office at 8. And he's a regular participant in a reading program at a District of Columbia school, where his stitched cowboy boots are a big hit with the kids.

Stenholm seems to thrive on the activity.

Among reporters, lobbyists and other observers, Stenholm is regarded as a hard worker, one of Washington's most knowledgeable sources on agriculture and a serious presence on the Hill.

"He's not much for soundbites, but the press often gravitates to him for a moderate viewpoint," said one reporter who has covered Congress for years and, like many of the unelected in Washington, talks best when he goes unnamed.

He also gets high marks for his staff, some of whom started with his predecessor, the late Omar Burleson of Abilene.

"Stenholm's part of that dwindling Sam Rayburn, Lloyd Bentsen school of Democrats," said a reporter. "He believes deal-making and compromise is the way to get things done, you need to keep business happy but temper the market with government, and that partisanship accomplishes little."

Not that Stenholm doesn't deliver the Democratic line. He has referred to both GOP leaders and freshmen as "extreme," a loaded word. And, like Clinton, he called 1994's Contract with America the "Contract <I>on<I> America," though he ended up voting for 80 percent of it.

But he doesn't much engage in ethics wars or deliver late-night C-Span sermons. His response to Democratic and Republican scandals is generally the same - let the judicial system work - and reporters and staffers learn early he doesn't appreciate private denigrating of colleagues.

In July, the most negative comment a reporter could draw from him was in response to persistent fishing about what he really thought of California Rep. Bob Dornan, he of the flaming TV soliloquies.

"He's one of a kind," Stenholm said, quietly adding, "Thank goodness."
Dornan takes that as high praise, a member of his staff says.


Stenholm has not enjoyed life in the minority, at the mercy of a Republican leadership he believes wanted division and the chaos of a government shutdown.

Democrats were given little or no input into bills, he complains, while House Speaker Newt Gingrich allowed revolution-minded GOP freshman to set the no-compromise agenda.

"I found myself asking some of my friends on the other side of the aisle, 'Did I treat you like this when we were in the majority?'" he said.

Stenholm insists he did not, that in subcommittees he chaired he sought Republican input. But he admits Democrats as a whole became victims of what they themselves wrought over 40 years of House rule.

"We allowed a very vocal minority, an ultra-liberal element, to rule our party," he said. "Republicans did not learn from our mistakes."

But he says Democrats have learned. Though he still believes Bonior is too liberal and partisan for the party's leadership, he credits Minority Leader Dick Gephardt with giving conservatives a voice. And it's worth noting the Democratic Party agenda and platform this year has moderated.

Republican leaders call that a fraudulent facade, however. And whatever Stenholm may have done in the Reagan era, they now consider him one of the guilty architects of that facade. And the criticism of him will likely grow in coming weeks.

Though GOP leaders mostly stayed out of his district in 1994, they'll be paying visits on behalf of Izzard's challenge. U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson of Dallas is scheduled, and Gingrich himself may make a stop.

Both will voice similar charges to one made by House Majority Leader Dick Armey earlier this year - that Stenholm has lost all credibility with conservatives.

For conservative Republicans the last straw was in 1993, when Stenholm voted for a Clinton tax-hike budget version in exchange for entitlement controls Republicans considered meaningless. He took several other conservative Democrats with him. Though Stenholm voted against the final Clinton bill, GOP leaders decided his battle to "move the party to the center" was a fraud.


Gingrich compared Stenholm to the Washington Generals, the basketball team that travels with and always loses to the Harlem Globetrotters.

"Their job is to make it look interesting, make it look close even, but in the end to lose gracefully," he said.

One of his persistent critics, Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist, says conservatives in the past five years have given up taking Stenholm's battles with his party leadership seriously.

"After a while you begin to figure it's a fixed fight, that he's actually working with them and his job was to make them look good for the moderate Democrats while at the end of the day, Clinton gets the tax increase he wants," said Norquist, whom Stenholm and his staff dismisses as a far-right conservative with personal animosity against the congressman for some reason.

"Stenholm should either quit the party or quit trying to pretend he's a conservative Democrat," Norquist said. "Because if he really is one it's been tearing him to shreds internally to do all this stuff all these years. He ought to stop the internal bleeding."


U.S. Rep. Pete Geren, who is retiring from Congress after four terms, said Republican charges Stenholm has lost credibility are untrue.

"I think he's respected even by the people who disagree with him," Geren said. "He's just really one of the very few people who works across the political spectrum.

"This place for the most part is everybody's in one camp and everybody else is in the other camp and they throw bombs back and forth. Charlie is a consensus builder. He has the credibility to be able to do that."

But Geren, who is returning to Fort Worth, has become a symbol for Stenholm's critics. Geren, they note, is what a congressman should be: someone who serves a few years, then returns to his community.

Stenholm, who opposes term limits, believes tenure creates an important institutional memory in Congress. He routinely tells audiences he hated the seniority system when he was first elected, but now that his seniority has grown, "I like it more every day."


For all the debate about where he really stands, longevity in office may be Stenholm's greatest vulnerability. And Stenholm's behavior and statements sometimes boost the image of a Washington insider.

It's standard for challengers to note that Stenholm was among those who wrote overdrafts on the House bank several years ago, that he's flipped on controversial positions, most recently on an amendment to ban flag-burning.

He praises good lobbyists, telling audiences the best of them are indispensable. Likewise, he steadily reels in political action committee contributions, and considers PACs useful tools for small businesses and individuals to make their concerns known. As his Ag Committee seniority grows, he has become even more of a magnet for agribusiness money.

Stenholm over the years has been noted as a well-traveled congressman, earning "frequent flier" designation from Common Cause for accepting trips for lobby speeches, often combined with golf tournaments in sunny climes. He defends the trips and the speeches, arguing that opportunities to push his views help him become more than one vote.

Lobby events led to recent criticism for missing a memorial service for Dyess Air Force Base airmen killed while helping to transport equipment from Clinton's Wyoming vacation.

Stenholm had engagements speaking to sugar growers in Minnesota and peanut growers in Alabama, groups that have long contributed to him. By the time he learned of the memorial service schedule, he said, he was unable to get plane transportation back to Abilene and sent his district manager in his place.

He argues he would have been equally criticized if he had spent money to charter a plane or use Air Force transportation. But critics contend a second- or third-term Stenholm, less concerned with being a national voice for agrculture would have been there.


Stenholm says he learned years ago there will be times a member of Congress cannot win, no matter what he does. But he shows few signs of wanting to voluntarily change careers or directions.
When asked how long he intends to keep serving, he says only that he is asking for "another two-year extension of his contract." But should he win a 10th term, the question of how long he'll keep trying will depend which party controls Congress.

Whatever that outcome, Stenholm is excited about challenges ahead. He's part of a bipartisan group looking for ways to tone down the partisanship in Congress, perhaps with such simple measures as a friendly get-together among members before the political wars begin.

Less simple is entitlement reform. Stenholm is co-chair of a pension reform conference addressing Social Security and Medicaid.

"We've got just a few more years to make those constructive changes" he said. "If we don't, our sons and grandsons and daughters and granddaughters won't think too highly of us. I don't know many people in 17th District who don't realize we've got problems ahead."

He denies life in the minority has made him less effective, less influential among moderates. In fact, by his reading of polls a number of House GOP freshmen will lose re-election and be replaced by his kind of people, moderate-to-conservative Democrats, potential Blue Dogs.

"Both parties have learned from their mistakes," he said. "I think we're definitely at a pivotal moment."

All content copyright 1996, Richard Horn,The Abilene Reporter-News and Reporter OnLine


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