Politics 2003Week of May 19

DENDAHL DOWN No one disputed that in his nine years as Republican state chairman of New Mexico, John Dendahl ran a tight ship and was a successful party fund-raiser. Even those party activists who did not particularly care for Dendahl agreed that the Santa Fe engineer and former state secretary of economic development and tourism was a first-rate administrator. And that was the problem, because, for varying reasons, the ranks of those who did not care for Dendahl were substantial and, earlier this month, they proved to be substantial enough to bring him down. By a vote of 197 to 156, the Republican state central committee in the Land of Enchantment elected State Sen. Ramsay Gorham as chairman over the embattled Dendahl. The wife of wealthy Bernalillo County (Albuquerque) entrepreneur Frank Gorham, Ramsay Gorham is considered a strong conservative and is a particular favorite of cultural conservatives in the state party. Dendahl was also considered a strong conservative, but his downfall had little to do with ideology. Dendahl had strongly weighed in behind close friend and then-Republican Gov. (1994-2002) Gary Johnson two years ago after the governor made nationwide headlines denouncing the federal war on drugs and suggesting that some narcotics be decriminalized. After several years of a tempestuous working relationship with State GOP Executive Director Kevin Moomaw, the chairman fired Moomaw in 2000. In Dendahl’s angry words, “Kevin is someone who believes in revenge and has devoted the years since to it.” In part because of his firing of Moomaw, Dendahl’s relationship with Sen. Pete Domenici (R.-N.M.) deteriorated and this year both the senator and his son, Albuquerque attorney and state central committee member Pete Domenici, Jr., were publicly in the Gorham camp. (Interestingly, New Mexico’s two Republican U.S. representatives, Heather Wilson and Steve Pearce, issued statements expressing their belief that elected officials should remain neutral in party fights—their position, Dendahl noted, had the effect of “leaving my opponent with Domenici in her camp and me with no one from the congressional delegation.”) Last summer, Dendahl weathered a firestorm of negative publicity when he told national Republican officials that he knew of someone who would donate a six-figure amount to the Green Party candidates for Congress in order to help them take votes from the Democratic nominees and thereby assist Republican candidates Wilson and Pearce. “Dirty tricks!” charged Democrats, after the story about Dendahl and the prospective Green contributor made the front page of the New York Times. For his part, Dendahl later explained to me, he had broken no law, no deal with the Green was ever made, and Dendahl has never disclosed the name of the mystery donor. But the firestorm surrounding the incident, he admitted, helped the cause of “those who do not like me.” At a packed meeting at the Hilton Hotel in Albuquerque, with only two members of the committee missing, Dendahl went down. He immediately conceded and congratulated Gorham, who announced that her first goal as chairman was to end the acrimony that had so plagued the party. DEATH OF A “ONE TERM WONDER” The news that former Rep. (1994-96) Frank Cremeans (R.-Ohio) had died January 2 came to me only one week ago and, as it was to many in Washington who had known the Buckeye State lawmaker during his lone term in Congress, the news was a complete surprise. For two years, according to daughter Kerry Cremeans Healy, the former congressman and Gallipolis (Oh.) lawmaker had been battling Lou Gehrig’s disease “He swore he would never become helpless and he also did not want his condition discussed outside the family,” she told me. He died in January, just over a month shy of his 59th birthday, the second member of the House Republicans’ celebrated “Class of ’94” that took control of the House for the first time in four decades to die. (The other was, of course, California’s Sonny Bono, who died in 1998.) Cremeans was an Ohio State University graduate and public school teacher, who, as a young man during summer vacations launched a cement business that quickly evolved into a lucrative enterprise. Like close friend and frequent hunting companion Steve Forbes, Cremeans decided to run for office with next to no experience in politics and with contempt for career office-holders, who, as he told me in 1994, “can’t balance the federal budget the way I balance my company’s budget.” In his maiden political voyage, Cremeans raised eyebrows by winning the Republican primary for Congress in Ohio’s 6th District by a handsome margin (50% to 38%) over the choice of the party establishment, State Sen. Cooper Snider. That fall, in a campaign that repeatedly slammed hard at Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland (“If you like Bill Clinton, you’ll love Ted Strickland!”), the businessman-candidate won in a dramatic upset. Cremeans (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 94%) was refreshing as a congressman because he never retreated from the positions on which he campaigned, even as other Republicans were trimming the conservative positions on which they took over Congress in ’94. He was pro-life across the board, for the Balanced Budget Amendment and for abolishing the Department of Education. He was an opponent of the National Endowment for the Arts (“entertainment practices that undercut our values”), and wanted to extend the death penalty to crimes not covered by federal law. While most elected Republicans in Ohio were for Bob Dole for President in ’96, Cremeans was loyal to friend Forbes. In part because of his refusal to budge on stands he had taken, Cremeans lost a rematch with Strickland in ’96. Two years later, the former congressman attempted a comeback bid but, with the party establishment still not warm to him, Cremeans placed second in a three-candidate primary. In 2000, agreeing that Republican Sen. Mike DeWine was casting several key votes that were disappointing to the right, Cremeans took him on in a primary, drawing only 8% of the vote. But even opponents could not help but admire Cremeans’ candor, his good nature, and his refusal to pretend to be anything other than what he was. After the news that he had died became public, recalled daughter Kerry, “the first call and letter of sympathy my mother received was from Mike DeWine.” RYAN’S HOPE-LESS IN ILLINOIS While we were waiting for Press Secretary Ari Fleischer to come out and brief us last week, fellow White House correspondent Bob Kemper of the Chicago Tribune told me this one: because he was so often confused with scandal-tarred lame duck Republican Gov. George Ryan last year, Atty. Gen. and GOP gubernatorial nominee Jim Ryan told the Tribune he wanted to be referred to in headlines as “J. Ryan” instead of “Ryan.” The newspaper subsequently got a call from George Ryan’s office, insisting that they had no right to put an initial in front of the last name of one particular politician when everyone else’s name in headlines is with last name only. (Jim Ryan was eventually defeated by Democrat Rod Blagojevich.) Why is this important today? Following the surprise decision of GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R.-Ill.) to step down next year, former Gov. (1990-98) Jim Edgar last week said his present to his wife for Mother’s Day was not to run for the seat—despite a phone call from President Bush urging him to make the race. Days after Edgar’s no-go, State Treasurer and Party Chairman Judy Baar Topinka announced that she, too, would pass on the Senate race. So, with six Democrats eagerly vying for the nomination in the primary next March, what Republicans are now the most-oft mentioned candidates for the Senate?—Jim Ryan and Jack Ryan, former vice president of Goldman-Sachs.