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Morella holds center, delivers the goods

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CONNIE MORELLA kept the faith and was rewarded. The Grand Old Party came back to her. When the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia pitched its big tent, when nominee George W. Bush went for inclusiveness, when no one said what the hard right demanded, it was clear.

This is not just a party that found a place for Eighth Congressional District Rep. Constance A. Morella, a champion of women's choice, gun control and public schools. This is a party that needs her, especially if Mr. Bush is elected and the Republicans keep control of the House. Her weight on the wing would bring the balance closer to Mr. Bush's center.

This follows years of other people's doubt whether Ms. Morella belonged. Her discomfort began at the 1992 convention, when Pat Buchanan declared cultural war on all sorts of people to whom she had been reaching out.

Then came Newt Gingrich's taking over as speaker of the House after the 1994 election. Ms. Morella, always a true Republican, signed his Contract with America. That was a pledge to get these issues to the floor, she said. There, she voted for some, against others.

People with no institutional memory wondered what Connie Morella was doing in the Republican Party. Smart aleks of the right were heard to mispronounce the n's in her name as m's. Some prominent Democrats didn't understand, either, urging her to come over to their side.

Of course she was a Republican. She always drew fine lines. She is known as one of four Republicans in the House of Representatives to vote against all four articles impeaching President Clinton.

In fact, she voted for the impeachment inquiry, withheld comment, kept everyone guessing, made no effort to influence anyone, and ended the suspense on the floor at roll call.

There was a time - and perhaps it is returning - when Ms. Morella did not have to explain being a Republican, nor did the party for having her.

Constance Albanese grew up the child of immigrants and public schools in the Boston suburb of Somerville, where most people were Democrats. She moved to Washington in 1954 along with her husband, Anthony C. Morella, who was attending law school there.

They lived in an apartment in the District of Columbia for a year, then one in Silver Spring, then rented a house, then built a house in Rockville, where their son and his family now live, and moved in 1971 to their present Bethesda home.

Tony Morella worked for liberal Republicans, including Rep. John V. Lindsay (later mayor of New York), and at one time headed a committee to nominate New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller for president. He became a law partner and lobbyist and began a long association with American University as both law professor and general counsel.

Connie Morella taught English in high school, earned a master's degree from American University and was professor of English at Montgomery College for 16 years. She is a literary person who will quote Fielding or Frost at the drop of a name.

She had three children and, when her sister died of cancer, raised six more. Her introduction to public service was on the Montgomery County Comission for Women. Issues discussed by that panel led her into politics, as a liberal Republican.

This was the Morellas' circle and a Montgomery County tradition. Gilbert Gude, environmental zealot, was the county's liberal Republican member of Congress. Charles McC. Mathias, Maryland's liberal Republican senator from 1969 to 1987, was the friend who convinced Professor Morella to pursue her causes as a politician.

She ran for the Maryland General Assembly in 1974 and lost. She was bitten, ran again in 1978 and won handily.

In Annapolis, she gained a reputation as a liberal on social legislation and a conservative on fiscal matters - so much so she was placed on the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

Then, in 1986, when the old Gude seat was vacated by Democrat Michael D. Barnes, she went for it - and won by 6,000 votes.

As a Republican concerned about women's and health issues and gun control, Representative Morella strengthened the reputation she had made in the state legislature, while adding a strong national defense to the issues she could be conservative about.

Only after the House Republicans shifted further right in 1995 did she cease to fit in. Yet even then, mainstream Republicans understood she had to be liberal to hold Montgomery County for their party. On the vote that truly matters - Republican control of the House - she always votes with them.

After seven terms, Ms. Morella is an established champion on the Republican side for the issues important to her. A suggestion in a 1995 Washington Post profile questioning her influence in the House provoked an indignant rebuttal from the women's movement.

She delivers for her constituency, using committee assignments for what in earthier parts of the country is called the pork barrel.

On the House Committee on Science, she chairs the technology subcommittee and sits on the basic research subcommittee. There she can look after the National Institute for Standards and Technology, a major constituency, and the National Science Foundation. She was a key point person on fixing the government's Year 2000 computer problems.

On the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, where Chairman Dan Burton praised her support for investigations of the Clinton administration, her subcommittees oversee the District of Columbia and civil service - vitally important for the many federal workers in her district.

She is proud of a bill to provide group-rate, long-term care insurance for federal retirees. Her causes include the Violence Against Women Act, Medicaid, coverage for pregnant women and children who are legal immigrants, increased housing aid to low income AIDS sufferers, osteoporosis screening, tuberculosis funding and a bipartisan patients' bill of rights.

Those who denigrate her as not really important concede she is nice. No one dislikes her - everyone calls her Connie - but some patronize her for being pleasantly focused on her district and the issues that drew her into politics.

Not a renowned national figure, she is extremely well-known on Capitol Hill. Many colleagues, journalists, staffers, lobbyists and interest groupies are her constituents.

Other representatives, celebrities at home, cherish D.C. for their anonymity there. Ms. Morella doesn't have it. But she avoids their red-eye. She is never distant from constituents, or from leadership.

Connie Morella at 69 is an effervescent woman with a warm, inviting smile. A hint of Boston remains in her accent.

This is supposed to be her toughest re-election fight ever, as were the last two, which weren't (she won by over 20 points each time).

She sees things going her way. She believes that whichever party wins the House will do so by fewer than ten votes and need the moderates, its own and the other party's.

When explorers of Left and Right set out to discover the Center Ground, they will find Connie Morella putting out the welcome mat. They landed on her turf. She never left.

Election 2000

Today, The Sun continues its editorial look at member of the Maryland congressional Delegation who face re-election contests on November 7.

Constance A. Morella (R)

8th Congressional District

Born: Feb. 12, 1931

Somerville, Mass.

Years in Congress: 14

Prior office: Md. House of Delegates

Occupation: English professor

Residence: Bethesda

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