So far, Rollins is guilty only of being a braggart


WASHINGTON -- Ed Rollins' deposition on what he did and didn't say about black voter suppression should end speculation that the election of his New Jersey gubernatorial client, Republican Christine Todd Whitman, might be voided. Barring testimony from other sources establishing actual denial of voter rights, Rollins was sufficiently persuasive in saying under oath that he was guilty only of gross braggadocio and exaggeration to blunt Democratic hopes for a court-ordered rerun against defeated Gov. Jim Florio.

Rollins' central premise -- that a desire to add to the post-defeat misery of rival consultant James Carville, handling the Florio campaign, by engaging in "one-upmanship" was his motivation -- has the ring of truth if you know the temperaments of both men.

There is in Rollins' deposition one brief discussion of a conversation with a Whitman campaign aide that implies that there was an attempt of a mild sort at voter suppression. The only trouble is Rollins' comment in this exchange also has been refuted by the other person involved.

Rollins in his original boast to reporters had talked of Republican promises of help on church "special projects" if black ministers agreed not to take to their pulpits to urge their congregations to vote for Florio. Asked about it in the deposition, Rollins said he had "no personal knowledge" of it but then told of a conversation he had with Lonna Hooks, charged with contacts with the black community for the Whitman campaign.

Hooks, he said, "came to me and said, 'Ed, we are getting terrible, terrible pressure among some of our people . . . who wanted to support us . . . who have now endorsed Florio. The Democrats are really putting the pressure on in the black community. What can I do?' " Rollins in his testimony made mention of reported Democratic threats "to cut off day-care centers" and other state-supported activities and said he told Hooks to "go back to these people . . . and tell them, as far as we're concerned, we want to help them. Whatever their favorite charity may be, there are other ways of helping them besides state funds that Florio has . . . but I didn't authorize her to go commit resources. . . . All I did was give her some suggestions, and I said, 'Tell them, if they don't go up to the pulpit and preach against us on Sunday, we'd be way ahead of the game.' "

2& Rollins went on in the deposition:

"I don't care if a black priest endorses or a Catholic priest, the bottom line is, I didn't want them to stand up in the pulpit and basically say, 'You have a moral obligation to go vote with Jim Florio.' " A couple of days later in the hall, he said, Hooks told him that "'it seems to be helping somewhat. I've gone out and talked to some people.' " All she was doing, he said, was "saying to these people who were being threatened by the Democratic side and by Florio, not to cave in, that there would be other ways to help you."

Rollins continued: "I watched a campaign that used the power of the incumbency as great as anybody had, so I'm sure all these threats were made. . . . All I was trying to say is to say to people, 'Don't panic, you know, we'll stand by you, too.' "

Hooks, however, now says she never told Rollins that the Florio campaign was threatening to cut off help to the black churches or that he suggested to her that promises of special treatment be made to the ministers to clam up on support for Florio. Why Rollins, if it wasn't true, would volunteer what was essentially damaging testimony to his own case remains a mystery.

In any event, Rollins' version of what he suggested to Hooks was, even if true, a far cry from the picture of a massive voter-suppression effort painted by his original boast to reporters. In the deposition he also said that the half a million dollars spent he had mentioned earlier as "walking-around money" really referred to the campaign's total get-out-the-vote effort -- not an unreasonable figure for legitimately generating turnout in a statewide election in New Jersey.

With some depositions remaining to be taken from other Republican officials, there still may be a "smoking gun" to prove serious GOP villainy.

But right now the principal crime appears to be Rollins' compulsion to blow his own horn.

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