Politics 2003Week of June 30

SANTA SAYS: “JUDGE NOT, CHRIS DODD!” Not since the Democrat-controlled Senate turned down two Southern nominees to the Supreme Court nominated by President Nixon in 1969-70 and fueled the emerging Republican clout in the South has the issue of judicial appointments been such a major political issue as it is today. Indeed, while most people can name a federal judge only if he is involved in a spectacular trial or named to the Supreme Court, the names of several of President Bush’s choices for the U.S. Court of Appeals—Priscilla Owens., Charles Pickering, Bill Pryor, and, of course, Miguel Estrada—are fast becoming as well-known in political circles as any of the Democrats vying for Bush’s job next year. As Democrat-led filibusters and mean-spirited questioning of the nominees before the Senate Judiciary Committee continues, it seems certain that Bush and other Republican candidates in ’04 will make a major issue of the failure of the Senate to act on his choices to fill court vacancies. Santa Mendoza is not yet sure she will seek the Republican nomination against Sen. Christopher Dodd (D.-Conn.), although there is certainly a growing movement pushing the feisty West Hartford lawyer and mother of three to make the race. But should she take the seemingly unwanted GOP standard against four-termer Dodd (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 19%), the 46-year-old Mendoza made it quite clear that she will make a major issue of his role in the Democratic Senate refusal to permit a confirmation vote on Bush appointees. “It is an insult, for example, to hear opponents say that Miguel Estrada is not Hispanic enough,” Mendoza told me during a visit to HUMAN EVENTS last week. She also tore into the claim of Dodd and other Democratic senators that the first Hispanic nominated to the D.C. Court of Appeals had been vague in answering questions about his judicial philosophy. “Estrada has answered far more questions than Ruth Bader Ginsberg did when she was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1993 and Dodd voted for her without hesitation,” said Mendoza, a member of the Hispanic Bar Association who has been active in the pro-Estrada movement. Accompanied by former State GOP Chairman Richard Foley and veteran Nutmeg State political consultant Christopher Healy, Mendoza was in Washington to size up possible support for a bid against Dodd, easily the state’s most popular politician. As intimidating as the odds may be, Foley noted, “Santa has taken on long-shot missions before and come up well.” He recalled how last year, she was the party’s candidate against a Democrat as durable as Dodd—five-term State Atty. Gen. Richard Blumenthal. She drew only 32% of the vote, but in the process raised more than $100,000 and drew much favorable publicity for her spirited performance in debates against the incumbent. The anger among grass-roots conservatives over the treatment of Estrada, Owens & Co. by Dodd and other Senate Democrats could further energize support for a hard-hitting candidate who makes an issue of the “judicial crisis,” Foley added. The daughter of a Mexican-born physician and his Italian-born wife (“What a love story they’ve had!”), Mendoza is a graduate of Fairfield (Conn.) University and the University of Connecticut Law School. She became an active Republican because, in her words, “I despised Bill Clinton and truly loved [the elder] George Bush” and began writing letters to the editors of local papers slamming the last Democratic President. From there, she became involved as a volunteer in local GOP campaigns in West Hartford and then made her statewide bid last year. Should she take on Dodd, Mendoza told me, she will draw vivid contrasts between her positions and his opposition to the tax cut, a ban on partial birth abortion, and U.S. action in Iraq. But clearly, it is the “judicial crisis” that makes Mendoza most passionate and which she would use to put Connecticut on the political map next year as a candidate. A Footnote: Michael Barone, father of the Almanac of American Politics and editor-at-large for U.S. News & World Report, recently underscored the growing importance of judicial appointees as a potent political issue in ’04. Asked at a recent forum what President Bush could best do to attract Hispanic voters, the veteran political analyst replied without hesitation: “Four words—Chief Justice Miguel Estrada!” DAVID TOWELL, R.I.P. Although Tom Larainger and Hal Furman had both been interns and then full-time staffers for former Sen. (1974-86) Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.)—easily the most durable politician in modern Nevada history—neither had any strong memories of David Towell, who was the silver state’s lone U.S. Representative from 1972-74. For that matter, Towell himself—who died June 11 at 66 following a long illness—likened his own political career to a rocket ride that “went straight up and straight down.” But, as dim and remote as he was from contemporary politics, Towell had a brief and shining moment in the political arena that, in its time, made him a star among conservative Republicans. A native of Bronxville, N. Y., who settled in Nevada to sell real estate, Towell became an active volunteer in local Republican politics and was founder and president of the Douglas County Young Republicans. One of the chores he took on for the party was to accept the seemingly worthless Republican nomination in 1972 against Democratic Rep. Walter Baring, who had held Nevada’s at-large U.S. House seat for 20 years. But in a spectacular upset, Baring, whom the Almanac of American Politics had dubbed “the most conservative Democrat in the House outside the Deep South,” lost renomination to liberal state legislator James Bilbray, who was backed by eager battalions of anti-Vietnam War activists and extreme environmentalists. Overnight, the Republican nomination for Congress became valuable and, supported by a brilliant campaign managed by Gardnerville neighbor Tony Payton, Towell was soon attracting flocks of volunteers and former Baring contributors. Among those who encouraged Towell and worked as a volunteer in his campaign was lawyer Frank Fahrenkopf, who had a lost a bid for national YR chairman the year before. Baring himself finally endorsed the Republican, who defeated Bilbray by nearly 8,000 votes. As congressman, Towell served on the House Education and Labor and Interior Committees. Like Baring, he voted the conservative line across the board and looked after the interests of Nevada property owners. But that wasn’t enough for him to win re-election. While most pundits attributed his defeat after one term to public animosity against Republicans in the so-called “Watergate year” of 1974, what was more significant is that Nevada Democrats went back to their roots and nominated Las Vegas municipal judge Jim Santini, who was as conservative as any Republican and won back most of Baring’s old supporters. As we know from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, one person can touch others’ lives in strong ways. Payton, whom Towell brought to Washington as his top aide, went on to become a nationally-recognized political consultant until his own death last year; Bilbray finally made it to Congress in 1986, when Nevada had two districts, and served until his never-expected defeat in 1992 by present Sen. John Ensign; Fahrenkopf would go on to be Republican National Chairman Santini, uncomfortable among the increasingly left-leaning House Democrats, eventually switched to the GOP and ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in ’86. Towell had one more race in him. He was the Republican nominee against Democratic Sen. (1958-82) Howard Cannon in ’76, when he was beaten by a margin of 2 to 1. He then returned to the realty business in Gardnerville. Of his abbreviated career, Towell told the Las Vegas Review Journal, “I would like somebody to say, ‘He did a good job for the short time he was there.’ That would be nice for my grandchildren.”