Gizzi on Politics: Mar. 5-9

Marching Through Georgia-10

The recent death of Georgia Republican Rep. Charlie Norwood, following a long bout with cancer, has set the stage for the first special U.S. House election since the Democrats captured both houses of Congress in November. Last week, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue set the qualifying period to run through April, with the special election to be held June 19. All candidates, regardless of party, will appear on the same ballot. If no one wins a majority, a run-off between the top two vote-getters will be held four weeks later.

At first glance, the race to succeed Norwood would seem to be a slam-dunk for the GOP. The late congressman never had difficulty at the polls in his 12 years in office, winning 68% of the vote last year. In ’04, the 9th District gave George W. Bush 72% of the vote, and in 2000, Bush rolled up a two-to-one margin district-wide. Similar lopsided margins have been run up by other Republicans, such as Perdue and Senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.

But given the Democratic tidal wave at the polls last fall and the currently modest approval ratings of the President, all bets are off on a big GOP win in the special election. State Democratic Chairman Jane Kidd recently said that the party was “not necessarily” wed to another candidacy by Terry Holley, the Georgetown jeweler who drew 32% of the vote against Norwood in ’06. Among those also mentioned as Democratic standard-bearer are former State Sen. Carol Jackson of Habersham County and State Rep. Alan Powell of Hartwell.

With several heavyweight Republicans, notably state Sen. Ralph Hudgens, likely to compete in the special election and the strong signs that Democrats will rally behind a single candidate, the race to succeed Norwood is sure to attract attention from pundits and pols nationwide.

The Man Who Never Gave Up

“That clown from Bainbridge” is what cynics called Ralph Hudgens nearly 20 years ago when the small businessman and stalwart conservative made his first race for office, opposing then-Rep. (1980-92) Charles Hatcher in a South Georgia district that was hopelessly Democratic.

Hudgens lost quite badly in ’88, but he never gave up. He made it to the state house in 1996 and, after six years, moved up to the state senate. At 64, no one calls Hudgens a clown anymore: He was re-elected last fall with 67% of the vote and is chairman of the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee. This year, when a bill came up before Hudgens’ committee to raise the state minimum wage, it drew four yes votes and four noes. As Hudgens recalled to me: “A chairman votes only to break a tie, or create a tie to kill a bill. The National Federation of Business, Chamber of Commerce, and National Restaurant Association all said [an increase] was inflationary and a danger to small businesses. So I voted no and killed it.”

Such strong positions are not alien to Hudgens, who is still the same conservative he was when he first sought office in that impossible race 19 years ago. He continues to favor abolishing the U.S. Department of Education (“Don’t even ask if I’ll support No Child Left Behind!”), opposes abortion in all cases except to save the life of the mother, and was a strong backer of Senate Bill 529 to deny state services to illegal immigrants.

Hudgens, who told me he was “dialing for dollars” for this House race before we spoke last week, has represented 14 of the 21 counties in the 10th District. But as strong a base as he begins the race with, the conservative swashbuckler nonetheless has a geographical obstacle: He’s not from Augusta, which takes in more than one-third of the district and has long claimed the congressional seat for one of its own. When Hudgens last sought nomination for Congress in the 10th 13 years ago, he topped the initial primary field with 49% of the vote. But in the run-off with fellow conservative Norwood, a large turnout in Norwood’s hometown of Augusta gave him the nomination over Hudgens by 542 votes.

This year, Hudgens’ major GOP rival is also an Augusta man, State Sen. Jim Whitehead.

Hudgens conceded that he had few issue differences with Whitehead, who is also 64 years old, but he did point out: “Jim has been in the legislature three years, and I’ve been here 11. I’m a proven activist on issues and causes, and that’s what the conservative movement needs at this time.”

Gene Snyder, R.I.P.

In one of my last interviews with Rep. Gene Snyder (R.-Ky.) a year before he retired from Congress in 1986, I asked the Louisville lawmaker about some of his past controversial statements—and there were a lot of them. Would he still propose, I asked, George Wallace for the Supreme Court, as he did in the 1960s? “No,” replied Snyder, without hesitation. “He’s too liberal now.”

That was vintage Gene Snyder—saying calmly and precisely what was on his mind and, if it upset anyone, so be it. When he died February 16 at age 79, Snyder could accurately be called by the same nickname as a fellow son of his hometown, Muhammad Ali: “the Louisville lip.” He was also one of the early “movers and shakers” among conservatives in the House.

A self-described “poor boy from the other side of the tracks in a cold-water flat,” Snyder attended the University of Louisville and earned his law degree from the Jefferson School of Law in Louisville. Following stints as Jeffersontown city attorney from 1954-58 and then as a Jefferson County magistrate, Snyder made headlines by unseating Democratic Rep. (1958-62) Frank Burke in 1962.

In his first term, he denounced civil rights leader Roy Wilkins as “an itinerant race agitator” and blasted the “Socialistic liberalism of the New Frontier.” A target of national Democrats for his outspoken remarks and opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he lost a re-election bid that year decisively to Democrat Charles P. Farnsley, a former Louisville mayor.

Two years later, after redistricting put his former 3rd District in the city of Louisville, Snyder mounted a comeback in the redrawn, and suburban, 4th. When the Democratic nominee State Sen. John Moloney, died days before the election, Democrats hastily substituted retiring Rep. (1944-66) Frank Chelf. Snyder roared back to Congress with ease.

For the next 20 years, Snyder did little to tame his fascination with the provocative statement. Firing at the Democratic Party for its failure to oppose abortion, he vowed to “hang a fetus around my opponent’s neck.” Snyder was a fervent backer of victory in Vietnam and called for a tough response to “the storm-trooper tactics of the New Left.” He fought federal aid to education and creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, and he was the point man in the House in 1978 against funding for transfer of the Panama Canal.

In later years, Snyder began to be known less as a fighting conservative than as “prince of pork” on the House Public Works Committee. As Congressional Quarterly’s Politics in America put it: “His voting record is as conservative as ever, but his emphasis has narrowed from world communism and civil disorder to the roads, dams, and airports that govern life at the Public Works Committee.”

Among Snyder’s lasting legacies are his state’s Republican office-holders. As the Washington Post noted in reporting his death: “He mentored most of Kentucky’s current congressional lawmakers, including [Sen. Jim] Bunning and Sen. Mitch McConnell.”

Allen on the Rebound?

Three months after losing his re-election bid to the Senate from Virginia in a photo-finish, conservative Republican George Allen has been the subject of many rumors about when he will attempt a political comeback.

At a recent birthday party in Northern Virginia, I bumped into the 54-year-old Allen, who was engaged in animated conversation with former Virginia Atty. Gen. Jerry Kilgore. Allen told me he was enjoying the additional time he could spend with his children that being out of office afforded him.  He also made it clear he would not run for the Senate next year even if fellow Republican John Warner stepped down.

But would he run for his old job that he reportedly liked better than being in the Senate: the governorship, which Allen held from 1993-97?

“I sure want him to run,” chimed in Kilgore, the losing GOP candidate for governor in ’05. Allen just smiled and told me: “No comment.”