Rollins Unmuzzled

Although some may find me a bit rude to be talking politics at a funeral service, they would understand if the service was for Lyn Nofziger and the fellow mourner I spoke to was Ed Rollins.

The 63-year-old Rollins, who gave one of the eulogies for fellow California Reaganite Nofziger, greeted me at the crowded reception following the April 1st church service at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. When I asked about his duties as overall consultant to the U.S. Senate candidacy of Republican Rep. Katherine Harris in Florida, the bald, bantam Rollins replied: "I quit yesterday and she fired her whole staff." It goes without saying that Rollins had much more to say than tributes to our friend Nofziger, who died days before at age 81.

Now, a quick word on Ed Rollins: going back to his days as White House political affairs director under Ronald Reagan, he had a reputation for saying what was on his mind — sometimes without calculating the possible damage. As head of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 1990, he publicly voiced worries about the political fallout of then-President George H.W. Bush’s breaking his no-tax pledge and suggested he was taking personal control of a Republican campaign in a 1989 special congressional election — thus fueling Democratic charges that the Bush Administration was nervous about voter disenchantment. He briefly broke GOP ranks to be campaign manager for independent Ross Perot for President in 1992 — and then left and hinted in thinly-veiled terms he felt Perot was somewhat deranged. In 1993, Rollins got himself in major hot water after managing Republican Christine Todd Williams upset election as governor of New Jersey by claiming he authorized payments to black pastors not to encourage a turnout among parishioners for the Democrats. Amid a flurry of criticism, Rollins then insisted he had made up the payment-for-not-voting story as a means of twitting James Carville, the consultant for the losing Democratic candidate.

So now, the reader understands the years of admonitions by fellow Republicans to "Muzzle Rollins."

When we spoke, Rollins was unmuzzled. Regarding former client Harris, Rollins did not have any bad words or parting shots. In his words, "Katherine was dealt a bad hand. The White House should have supported her early on." The very public lack of enthusiasm for Harris by the Bush White House, Rollins believes, is the premier reason she has not taken off as the likely Republican candidate against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

Rollins did say that Harris was a "micro-manager who drives her staff nuts." In addition, the consultant voiced the view that "after twelve years in elective office, she had not developed any Harris people-any fervent supporters, up close and personal. There were no Lyn Nofzigers." He also said "you can’t get there [to build a fervent following] with money. She said she’ll spend $10 million of her own money and she’s running on empty. You also make yourself a target when you say you’ll spend your own money and she’s not yet out of the woods on Mitchell Wade [the defense lobbyist linked in the bribery conviction of former California Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who also gave a five-figure donation to Harris’s Senate campaign]." In the environment surrounding Cunningham and just-resigned Rep. Tom DeLay (R.-Tex.), noted Rollins, someone even remotely linked to corruption in Washington is damaged.

Will anyone take on Harris in a primary? "If anyone’s going to primary her at this stage, it’s the governor," replied Rollins, pointing out that opposition to Harris is coming "more from the governor [Jeb Bush] than the White House. If Jeb’s in the race, he’d win." When I asked about Bush’s repeated denials of interest in a Senate race, Rollins countered that he had heard the most recent rumblings in Tallahassee have it that the governor "is so sick and tired of the way the Senate race is going, he may run himself."

On to New York

Along with media maestro and fund-raiser Ann Dunsmore, Rollins has left the Harris campaign to oversee the fledgling Senate bid in New York of Republican K.T. McFarland, a fellow alumni of the Reagan Administration. As for criticism of New York Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long and others that Manhattan socialite McFarland is too liberal, Rollins told me: "She’s getting a bad rape because she’s pro-choice with modifiers. She’s a mother of five with two adoptive children. On all the other issues, she’s a Ronald Reagan and Caspar Weinberger Republican [McFarland served in the Pentagon under Weinberger as a spokeswoman]. It’s hard to paint her as a liberal."

Rollins supports Manhattan neighbor McFarland because "we need to bring women back into the Republican Party" and "she can compete with [Democratic Sen.] Hillary Clinton for their support. If the Republican Party goes for conservative, pro-life former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer as their nominee, he warned, "then all the party will be left with is the conservative base and nothing more."

When I reminded Rollins that no Republican since 1974 has been elected to statewide office in the Empire State without the dual Republican and Conservative Party ballot lines, he fired back: "And a lot have lost with the Conservative line too!" Regarding the public criticisms of Mike Long about his candidate, Rollins assured me that the Conservative chairman had promised that McFarland would get a fair hearing among the party’s executive committee (which will bless a candidate in May) and "Mike Long is a man of his word."

Typically, the plain-spoken Rollins gave me his assessment of the burial and memorial service for Nofziger, whom he described as "like a brother to me." In his words, "Lyn would have walked out after ten minutes. It went on too long and he would have been angry to find they weren’t serving liquor at the reception."


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