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GOP House leadership fails diversity test


SO NOW we know the House Republicans' idea of a diversified leadership. Last month they elected ultra-conservative, middle-aged white Christian males -- three Protestants and a Catholic (who used to be an Episcopalian) from adjoining oil patch states of Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma as speaker, majority leader, majority whip and conference chairman.

Now, I know some of you are thinking I must be blind -- J. C. Watts Jr., the conference chairman, is an African American. Yes, know, but to paraphrase the poet William Blake, "his skin is black, but Oh! his politics are white."

Look not at the representatives themselves but at their votes on House roll calls, and Mr. Watts is indistinguishable from his colleagues, Speaker-elect Robert L. Livingston, Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay. But before getting to that, let's look at the other shared characteristics.

Age. Representatives Livingston, Armey and DeLay were born, respectively, in 1943, 1940 and 1947. Thus all are in their 50s. Mr. Watts is younger, born in 1956, so he and Mr. DeLay are technically baby boomers, but they are old-beyond-their-years baby boomers. In some ways, they are their own grandpas, as conservative and suspicious of the federal government as Republicans of the 1920s and '30s.

Religion. Mr. Livingston was raised in the Episcopal Church, but began attending Catholic services when he married a Catholic. Mr. Armey is a Presbyterian. Mr. DeLay and Mr. Watts are Baptists.

District demographics. Mr. Armey is from a district outside Dallas that Congressional Quarterly describes as "a predominantly white, upper income Southern suburban area." Mr. Livingston is from a similar district outside New Orleans. Ditto Mr. DeLay of Houston.

Raising cattle

Mr. Watts' Oklahoma City district is more differentiated. It has some suburban constituents, but as he says: "We raise cattle back home; we grow some cotton and wheat, peanuts, and we drill for oil."

Philosophy/voting. I said earlier that they are all ultra-conservative. Best way to measure a member of Congress' political philosophy is his or her record on roll-call votes chosen by philosophical special interest groups as important and indicative. One such group is the American Conservative Union, founded in the year Barry Goldwater was nominated for president.

It ranks members of Congress from 0 to 100 percent conservative. Mr. Livingston in previous Congresses -- going back to 1991 -- had a cumulative rating of 92 percent, Mr. DeLay, 97 percent, Mr. Armey, 99 percent, and Mr. Watts, 98 percent.

Maryland's two black representatives, Albert Wynn of Prince George's County and Elijah Cummings of Baltimore had ACU ratings of 4 percent and 0 percent, respectively. These are not fair comparisons to assess Mr. Watts' or any Republican's voting record by. Both those Marylanders are Democrats representing heavily African-American districts.

A better close-to-home comparison would be with Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland's 1st District. It encompasses Glen Burnie, Annapolis and the Eastern Shore, similar to Mr. Watts' Oklahoma district in demographics. Mr. Gilchrest had a cumulative ACU average of 66 percent.

Mr. Wynn ran for the third-ranking House Democratic leadership position -- caucus chairman -- last month. He lost to Rep. Martin Frost, who represents a district between Dallas and Fort Worth with a significant minority population. He is Jewish, 56, with a moderate voting record. The standard litmus test for liberalism is a roll-call voting study made by the Americans for Democratic Action, the left's counterpart to the ACU. It was founded in 1947 by a group that included Hubert Humphrey and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Gephardt's rating

Its cumulative assessment of Mr. Frost's votes in previous Congresses -- back to 1991 -- is 68 percent. The party's floor leader, Rep. Richard Gephardt, a 57-year-old Baptist, represents working- and middle-class district in the St. Louis metropolitan area. His ADA rating was 76 percent.

The second man in the Democratic leadership in the House is Minority Whip David Bonior, who represents a socially conservative working-class suburb of Detroit. Mr. Bonior, 56, is Catholic. His ADA was 88 percent. The fourth-ranking Democrat, vice chairman of the caucus, was elected for the first time this year. He is Robert Menendez of a New Jersey district that includes parts of Jersey City and Newark. It is a melting pot district, and Mr. Menendez, 44 and Catholic, is the son of Cuban immigrants. His ADA cumulative rating is 89 percent.

Some Democrats in the House say they are not satisfied with the makeup of this leadership team. Some wish Mr. Wynn had won. Some want to see Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco (daughter of the late Baltimore Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr.) in a leadership position.

Still, the Democratic leadership beats the Republican leadership hands down on the diversity issue.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a former Sun editorial writer.

Pub Date: 12/10/98

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