Critics can’t figure out why Democrats like Mayor Anthony A. Williams and Council Chair Linda Cropp support embattled Republican Congresswoman Connie Morella. One hint: her record on D.C.

Photographs by Pilar Vergara

Just before dinnertime, Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) walks into a Kiwanis Club meeting at Leisure World. A few miles north of Silver Spring in Maryland’s Montgomery County, Leisure World, as its name suggests, is a campus of homes for retired people.

Almost 70 people sit at long tables, chewing on slices of pie (banana cream and Key lime) and sipping cups of coffee. The audience is an attentive bunch, dressed in sports coats and pants, suits, and blouse-and-skirt outfits with silk scarves. Hair has been curled for the occasion, cologne has been sprayed, and personal cameras are in people’s hands.

In American campaign folklore, the Leisure World crowd is an electoral gold mine. It consists of people who are serious about their politics and registered to vote—and people who pass along their opinions to other registered votes. And candidates like Morella know that these folks care most about a quartet of national political issues: Social Security, Medicare, prescription drug costs, and veterans’ benefits.

Strange thing, then, that Morella spends much of her time talking about an issue largely alien to these Montgomery County seniors: the District of Columbia.

After opening with a few jokes—”I remember when you said ‘log on,’ and it meant put a log on the fire”—Morella gives her audience a miniaturized State of the District address.

She tells them: “I’m chair of the D.C. subcommittee”—the House Government Reform Committee Subcommittee on the District of Columbia—”and it’s a labor of love. But it’s also a labor. I feel it’s more important to have someone who cares about the District of Columbia chair that committee than somebody from far away. This is a region. What happens in the District of Columbia affects the region. A few years ago, the city had a deficit of $5 million. Now they have a surplus of $5 million. Does that mean the city’s problems are all solved? No. But it means we’re getting there.”

These are the kind of words—”we’re getting there”—that insult advocates for D.C. statehood and for voting representation in Congress. Thanks to Article I, Section 8, of the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the final say on the most basic of matters of city governance—such as whether a teacher can run for political office without losing his job.

Morella attempts to convince her Leisure World constituents that she’s using her power to progressive ends. She mentions the overhaul of the District’s family court system, which she has coordinated along with Republican Whip Tom DeLay and D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Then there’s the city’s preparedness to handle another terrorist attack: On that, Morella has introduced a bill that would allow doctors licensed outside of the District to practice in the city with indemnity if there were a national emergency. A few minutes later, Morella opens the floor to a Q&A session. She doesn’t get a single request to elaborate on what she is doing on behalf of the District of Columbia.

As much as D.C. leaders gripe and groan because they have to submit to congressional approval, you’d assume members of Congress would enjoy meddling in the city’s affairs. In truth, most don’t. That’s because serving on the various committees that monitor the District isn’t glamorous. It doesn’t win you votes at home, it doesn’t get you fundraising dollars, and it doesn’t get you on the nightly news. Chairing one of these committees is, at best, a way to get experience so that you can chair better committees in the future.

“Nobody ever wants that job,” says Julius Hobson, a lobbyist for the American Medical Association, “and I wouldn’t blame them. I’ve seen members who had that job and then they had a problem when they ran for re-election.”

Says Norton of D.C.’s congressional overseers: “They spend a disproportionate amount of time on D.C. business when they should have been spending time at home.”

So it is with Morella, who this year faces perhaps the toughest re-election fight of any sitting congressional representative. In one of the telling anomalies of D.C.’s colonial status, Morella travels through suburban Maryland telling voters how she’s helping another jurisdiction. And it’s hard to take issue with her pitch: Unlike other Republican lawmakers, who seem to want to test far-right policy formulations in the District, Morella tries to respect the city’s collective will as much as her position allows. So even the staunchest critics of congressional oversight don’t have too much of a problem with her.

“It’s hard for me to see beyond the fact that we shouldn’t have these committees in the first place,” says Anise Jenkins, president of Stand Up for Democracy, a group pushing for D.C. autonomy and statehood. “You can have good plantation bosses and you can have bad plantation bosses. That one person can be good and another not very good just shows you that we don’t have control.”

Morella has represented Maryland’s 8th Congressional District for eight terms and is the state’s only female delegate to the House of Representatives, where she is considered the most liberal Republican. Most of her constituents are Democrats; in fact, she represents more Democrats than any other Republican in Congress.

There’s a very good chance, though, that this year Morella will be defeated. “I could lose,” she says matter-of-factly. “John Adams said, ‘You cannot guarantee success, but you can deserve it.’ I think I deserve it. I really do. All the work I’ve done for constituents. I’m accessible. I’m independent. I’m open-minded. I know my district. Like someone said, I’ll go to the opening of an envelope. They call me Connie. I get around the district like a cheap suit.”

Tired of her resolute hold on Montgomery County, Democratic legislators in the Maryland General Assembly and the governor redrew the 8th District this year to force her out and shoehorn a Democrat in. The assembly is controlled by Democrats. Morella calls this move “tyrannous,” “a total abuse of power,” “absolute arrogance,” and “a sign of the evils of one-party government.” She has said this is “an attempt to do in Annapolis what couldn’t be done at the ballot box.”

The 8th District has been thinned and elongated. Whereas it used to look something like a Pac-Man, it now looks like a piece of squash, contorted to incorporate a swath of black and Latino voters who live near D.C.’s border and to cut out a chunk of moderate constituents in the northern suburbs. Democrats in the new district are salivating at the prospect of taking on Morella. Assembly Delegate Mark Shriver, nephew of John F. Kennedy and brother-in-law of Arnold Schwarzenegger, has raised almost $2 million for his primary race against a crowded field of well-qualified candidates.

In the national calculus, Morella is one of the few vulnerable Republican incumbents, and her district has been pinpointed as a priority. If she is defeated, Democrats will have a better chance at regaining control of the House, which is divided in the GOP’s favor by a six-vote margin. So she’s developed all sorts of new allies and new enemies.

The ally camp is headed by President George W. Bush, who last week praised Morella at a fundraiser that pulled in $450,000. In an attempt to spin his political differences with the liberal Republican, Bush called Morella an “independent soul.” Keeping Morella in the House is central to the president’s Washington agenda.

But D.C. die-hards are still wondering why Morella has a similar grip on the loyalties of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. In April, word got out that Williams was preparing to co-host a fundraiser for Morella at the popular downtown restaurant Georgia Brown’s. Democrats were outraged. After all, the mayor stood to undermine all the work done to oust Morella by hosting the fundraiser. How could they cast her as a do-or-die Republican when the Democratic mayor of the District of Columbia supported her?

Terry McAuliffe, the national Democratic Party chair, admonished Williams hours before the event. He proclaimed that Democrats shouldn’t “hold fundraisers for Republicans” and that he “encourage[d] Democrats not to attend such events.” (Read: Don’t meddle in Morella’s campaign.) Linda Cropp, the reflexively low-ducking Democratic D.C. Council chair, had planned to go to the fundraiser but canceled at the last minute.

Being at the center of this controversy amuses Morella. “Linda called me up a half-hour before the event and said, ‘I hope you’ll understand I can’t make it. I have a meeting to go to.’ She said she had to go to some neighborhood association to speak at. I forget which one. I just laughed. I said, ‘No, Linda. I understand.’”

The mayor, meanwhile, didn’t bend. He defended his decision, saying, “I am in the business of supporting those people who have been friendly to the District or are in a position to help the District regardless of their party, regardless of what they look like or anything else. In our city, with the challenges we face, especially without a vote, I think it’s very, very important that we foster these relationships.”

That night, before a group of about 30 people at Georgia Brown’s, Williams stood up and called Morella “a great congresswoman” and “a friend of the city.” Outside, television cameras waited to catch the mayor leaving. And days after the event, the fallout continued. Norton, who will almost certainly become chair of the D.C. subcommittee if the Democrats seize leadership of the House, called Williams “naive or stupid.”

On the Stand Up for Democracy Web site, D.C. boosters piled on: “Psychologists have observed the phenomenon of kidnap victims becoming sympathetic to their kidnappers,” one wrote. “That must be the explanation for Mayor Williams’ endorsement of Connie Morella for re-election to Congress.”

The State Democratic Party Committee, the governing body of the Democratic Party in D.C., was riven by the mayor’s tacit endorsement. In Ward 8, party leaders voted to censure the mayor, setting up a showdown on the issue at the citywide Democratic Party cell. The committee voted by a slim margin—26 to 22—to spare Williams a political embarrassment.

Ward 8 Democrats Chair Philip E. Pannell helped lead the censure movement. “The Democrats are struggling to regain control of the House,” says Pannell. “Because of Connie Morella, the House is run by Tom DeLay and [Majority Leader] Dick Armey. Things go better for the District of Columbia when Democrats control the House.” Pannell and others have noted that the censure issue prompted a rare spurt of interest in intraparty politics on the part of the mayor, who sent representatives to lobby on his behalf on the night of the vote. “The mayor’s people went all out to get it defeated,” he says.

Morella, for her part, believes the Democrats overreacted. “These are people who are unhappy with themselves,” she says. “I can understand one article about it. And maybe the mayor saying, ‘Well, she’s involved in District government.’ And that be the end of it. But it went on and on and on. I can’t understand why. I want to say: ‘Get a life. Drop it, already.’ People have said to me—Democrats who are not the party spokespeople—that the mayor did the right thing. It is because I serve the District. He respects me, obviously, but the fact that I have this position—he works with me. What I do helps the District.”

Funny thing is, Williams and Cropp had attended fundraisers for Morella in the past, and no one had uttered a peep. The difference this year is that Democrats can almost smell victory in their efforts to regain control of the House.

“I don’t think he did anything that other mayors haven’t done,” says Dwight S. Cropp, an associate professor of public administration at George Washington University and the husband of Council Chair Cropp. “Local Democrats have a problem with it, but it’s good politics, and it’s good for the District of Columbia. When you think about it, when Democrats were in the majority in Congress, the District didn’t fare any better. We didn’t get voting rights, and we didn’t get budget autonomy.”

The affinity of some D.C. Democrats for Morella derives not only from the congresswoman’s record, but also from her personality. Morella laughs a lot, drops jokes like a crop duster, and radiates a positive attitude. An attractive woman with blue eyes and short brown hair, she resembles jazz singer Lena Horne when she grins—which is often.

“I’m easy to get along with,” says Morella.

Says Republican lobbyist Carl Schmid: “The only thing that anyone can say that’s negative about her is that she’s a Republican.”

Morella was a latecomer to politics. She was first elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1978 at age 47. During that election, she campaigned around Bethesda in an electric car under layers of hair. Before that, she had worked as a high school teacher and, later, an English professor at Montgomery College.

Still, her political career followed a history of civic involvement. She and husband Anthony Morella, a lawyer, raised nine children: three of their own and then more after her sister died of cancer. A concerned parent, Morella found herself involved in the PTA and obsessing over community problems. Right away, her supporters questioned whether she might be better off running as a Democrat. But Morella, who had in fact once been a Democrat, decided to stick with the GOP.

She first became a Republican when she was 31 and living in Bethesda. At the time, her husband was managing the congressional campaign of Charles McC. Mathias Jr., a liberal Republican from Maryland. Before that, he had worked for John V. Lindsay, the liberal Republican congressman from New York City. Morella says she was impressed with these progressive Republicans and others, such as New York’s Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller and Sen. Jacob K. Javits.

Morella was born Connie Albanese in working-class Somerville, Mass., one of six children. Her father was a cabinetmaker from Italy. Her husband is also from Somerville. Everyone Morella knew when she was growing up was a Democrat.

Today, Morella is a wealthy woman, with assets exceeding $1 million, according to congressional disclosure statements. Notwithstanding her modest beginnings, Morella gives off the impression that she is rich and well-educated. She often quotes Shakespeare during her speeches. She is fond of repeating the Lord John Action axiom: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” She usually throws it in when she’s assailing political party leaders and playing up her independence.

Morella served two terms in Annapolis, and then, in 1986, she decided to run for Congress. She was supposed to lose. Up until Election Day, she was down in the polls. Her opponent, a Democrat, had raised more than twice the amount of money she had. The popular Democratic incumbent, Rep. Michael D. Barnes, who was giving up the seat to run for the U.S. Senate, worked hard to see to it that she wouldn’t replace him. But she pulled off a surprise win in part because of her relentless campaigning.

In Congress, Morella has not accrued influence commensurate with her seniority. From Day One, she voted in line with her district, even when it meant bucking her party. She is, in political parlance, a progressive Republican—which is really just another way of saying she’s not tied to the conservative movement on social issues and can go any which way on other policy debates. Morella is pro-choice, a self-described feminist, and an environmentalist. Her candidacy has already been endorsed by gay civil-rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign. Half the people working for her, including her press secretary, are Democrats.

Accordingly, Republican leaders have never given her high-profile assignments. She has continued to serve on almost all the same committees she was assigned to when she arrived. The fact that Morella—with eight elections behind her—runs the Government Reform D.C. subcommittee indicates how little progress she’s made up the food chain. At first, Morella didn’t even want the chairmanship after Tom Davis, who assumed the post as a freshman Republican from Virginia, stepped down.

“I admire her for her free-thinking and her independence and her courage to vote her convictions,” says D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz, a Republican, who considers Morella a friend and an ideological soul mate. “I don’t think she has had an easy time. Democrats pick her out to go after, and people in her own party don’t feel comfortable with her.

But that’s the risk you take as an independent public servant.”

When Morella presides over a District of Columbia subcommittee hearing, she need not worry about overcrowding on the dais. Very often, Norton is the only other member who shows up. It’s an odd scene, the two of them questioning witnesses on a battleship-sized perch overlooking a cavernous hearing room.

Their interviewing styles don’t have much in common. Morella exudes conciliation and often schmoozes with hearing witnesses. When former control board member Stephen Harlan came to testify on court restructuring, for instance, Morella looked at him and said, “Oh, I see there’s been a change.” She then waved her left hand across her face to indicate the disappearance of Harlan’s mustache.

The frenetic Norton, by contrast, generally rifles through files and whispers to aides as she prepares to grill witnesses. Her shouting matches with D.C. officials and other city potentates are legendary.

To boost attendance, Morella says she tries to holds hearings on Fridays, when they don’t conflict with other meetings. Her committee colleagues, though, aren’t often enticed into attendance. “This is not that important to them. Eleanor and I pretty much do it,” she says.

Morella and Norton get along well, although the congresswoman did draw the delegate’s ire last year. Just as Morella was holding hearings on the end of the financial control board, she announced on a radio show that she’d like to see a “shadow control board” take its place. Norton was infuriated. Morella retracted the statement and now says it was a poor choice of words. What she intended, she says, was to see some kind of auditing procedure put in place after the control board was dissolved.

“I try to be very open to Eleanor,” Morella says. “I don’t want to micromanage. I know this is her district. This is a subcommittee in Congress, and it’s also her district. And I want to be fair to her. And I listen to her. If there’s a hearing she wants, we try to do that. If there’s someone she wants to testify, we try to do that. That kind of relationship is good. She gets uptight sometimes about things, but it works out fine. I want her to feel comfortable in coming to me.”

Last year, when Davis was preparing to leave the chair, Morella received entreaties from D.C. loyalists to take on the D.C. subcommittee. She admits that she didn’t really want it. At the time, she was the vice chair of the D.C. subcommittee and was casting about for a new chairmanship; term limits were forcing her from her post as head of the Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee of the Science Committee. She was in line for the chair of Government Reform’s Civil Service and Agency Organization Subcommittee, and she was inclined to take it. That committee has great bearing on her constituents, many of whom work for the federal government.

She was offered both positions and eventually decided to take the D.C. subcommittee. “I thought it would be a fun challenge to take on the District of Columbia,” she explains. “I have an intense interest in the District, and so I said, ‘I’ll do it.’”

Morella hasn’t tinkered all that much with the workings of the District. And that suits District leaders just fine. “She does a good job—from the standpoint that she gets along with Eleanor Holmes Norton and the mayor. Has Connie Morella been a friend to the District? Yes. She has been a person who listens and has tried to find ways and means to be of help,” says local business leader Ron Linton.

Williams commends the congresswoman for a “general policy of openness, and her support for major initiatives we’ve pushed over the years—budget emergency preparedness, autonomy for the city.”

Some wondered whether she might use her perch as chair of the subcommittee to advance Montgomery County’s interests. Morella has taken up the cause of commuters with her inquiry into the city’s use of traffic cameras, but so far, no hidden agenda has emerged.

Morella says she has worked hardest at reforming D.C.’s family court system. In its final form, the legislation established a family court in D.C. to manage cases relating to abused children. Despite Morella’s boasts, Norton insists that “all of the negotiation [on the bill] took place between DeLay and me or between Tom’s staff and mine.”

On other D.C. matters, Morella has joined with Norton in advancing legislation to give D.C. fiscal autonomy. If enacted, the bill would allow the District budget to go into effect once the D.C. government authorizes it, without congressional approval.

As is, the approval process often gets bogged down when lawmakers stick provisions, known as riders, into the budget. In the past, Congress tossed in riders that blocked D.C. from keeping high school swimming pools open past 9 p.m. and from installing meters in taxicabs. (The zone-fare system is weighted in Capitol Hill’s favor: A ride from there to almost anywhere downtown costs only $6.90.)

In recent years, however, congressional riders attached to the D.C. budget have tended away from municipal decisions and toward broader issues of public policy. When Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House, he eyed the District as a laboratory for Republican ideas. He tried to force the city to allow school vouchers, and he and his colleagues prevented it from authorizing needle-exchange programs for drug addicts, adoption by gay parents, and domestic partnerships.

Ernest J. Istook, a conservative Republican from Oklahoma, clearly tried to impose his ideological agenda on the District. As chair of the House D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee from 1998 to 2000, Istook made it impossible for the District to make marijuana available for medical reasons, fund abortions, or require health-insurance companies to cover birth-control prescriptions. He fostered the growth of charter schools in D.C. and almost unraveled the city’s gun laws. During the fights over these issues, Morella, unlike other area Republicans, consistently voted against her party, favoring a budget bill that was clean of riders.

Congressional machinations of this sort sap days of attention from the mayor and city councilmembers. They’re forced to trek to the Hill, in effect lobbying their overseers to leave the District alone.

Last year’s budget had the fewest riders in recent memory. Credit for the laissez-faire conversion goes both to Morella and to Rep. Joseph Knollenberg (R-Mich.), who now holds the gavel of the Appropriations D.C. subcommittee. A nod also goes to Mayor Williams, who is held in high esteem among lawmakers, who are therefore less prone to champion provisions that would undermine his authority. Two riders that usually pop up were absent from the last budget round: the bans on domestic partnerships and gay adoptions. Morella says she met with Knollenberg and was told that he planned to try to keep riders out of the D.C. budget bills.

One D.C. proponent who has worked behind the scenes on the budget bills says: “Members of Congress always attach crap to the bill. But Connie Morella has always been there to help the District. She’s one of the few dependable Republicans.”

Norton insists that crusading against riders is exclusively her province. “That’s left entirely to me,” she says. “I’m sure [Morella] opposes them. When riders come up, I wish there were more help.”

Morella’s center of operations at Congress is on the second floor of the Rayburn House Office Building. The reception area is a buzzing and tiny space about as big as a kitchen, with two desks, a small sofa, a large map of the 8th Congressional District, and a picture of Morella standing next to a caribou.

The caribou, though, is about the only non-party-affiliated being pictured on the congresswoman’s walls. Other shots, in her personal chambers, frame Morella with the Clintons and the senior Bushes. There’s Morella with Luciano Pavarotti, with Carol Channing, with Tip O’Neill, with Matt LeBlanc, with Al Gore, with George H. W. Bush, with Barbra Streisand.

The bipartisan photo display is no coincidence. Downplaying her Republican affiliation has become reflexive for Morella. She has done it in every election she’s been in. She avoids mentioning that she’s a Republican in her campaign literature. There are no noticeable elephants in her office. Morella volunteers that she’s really a “Republicrat.” She is proud of her stellar environmental record, and she makes no secret of the fact that she drives a Toyota Prius, an electric-and-gas hybrid car. It’s even colored forest green.

Morella’s moderate views extend to what she thinks of the District’s plight in Congress. She says that D.C. voters are disenfranchised and should have a voting representative in Congress, though she’s against statehood.

That sort of thinking sets her apart from her predecessors. There was a time when representatives in charge of the D.C. subcommittee used their power to all but run the day-to-day operations of the District government. John L. McMillan, a Democratic from South Carolina, was chair of the subcommittee in the ’60s and ’70s and considered himself the city’s de facto mayor. He consistently blocked the creation of an elected city government.

Then-D.C. Delegate Walter E. Fauntroy was so fed up with McMillan’s meddling that, in 1970, he led a busload of District residents to South Carolina to try to get him kicked out of office. The group registered hundreds of new voters—mostly black—and McMillan was forced into a runoff. Although the congressman ended up winning that election, he lost his re-election bid two years later. With McMillan out of office, Congress passed the D.C. Home Rule Act in 1972; residents were finally given the power to choose their own mayor and city council.

On the flip side, Rep. Davis was well-regarded by District leaders. He was the first area congressman to lead the committee in 56 years and the first freshman in 40 years to run a subcommittee. As soon as Davis was given the job, he selected members cautiously, inviting lawmakers who were adept at issues of crime, education, and urban problems.

During Davis’ first year on the job, he authored and co-sponsored legislation creating the D.C. financial control board and fought off calls to strip the city with a receivership. Later, he championed the closing of Lorton prison, sponsored a bill restoring full management powers to the District government, and fought for the D.C. College Access Act, which allows District residents to attend public colleges anywhere in the United States at in-state rates.

Morella followed Davis’ achievements by addressing the city’s family courts and budget autonomy. Her record, says the congresswoman, should temper enthusiasm among D.C. politicos for a changeover in the congressional majority.

“All this talk about the Democrats being in control—they didn’t do anything when they were in control for the District of Columbia,” she says. “Quite candidly, more was done when the Republicans were in control. [The city’s unfunded pension] liability was taken over, the judicial branch was funded, 70 percent for Medicaid rather than 50 percent. The tuition act. The family court. These have all happened with the Republican majority. I think sometimes people need to look at the history of the District when they talk about a political party not caring.”

Of course, it’s not a foregone conclusion that Morella’s election will determine control of the entire House. Should Morella lose, Republicans could still retain their majority. In that event, Morella’s D.C. subcommittee would be turned over to another Republican—presumably one who knew little about the District and one who might have a substantially heavier touch.

Morella herself says that she may not remain chair of the subcommittee even if re-elected. “I’m interested in staying on the D.C. committee,” she says, “but I don’t make any definitive statements.”

It’s easy to see Morella moving on to another post if she’s offered something decent. And she may be. It’s almost impossible to imagine another Republican capturing her seat. Next year, if she’s re-elected, Republicans will likely realize how much they need Morella. And they’ll likely offer her a plum assignment, finally. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Pilar Vergara.