Gizzi on Politics, November 16, 2009

Statehouse Exits

It was widely speculated that the November 3 Republican victories in the governorship races in Virginia and New Jersey would encourage more GOP candidates for statehouses in 2010. But last week two well-known Republicans made surprise exits from significant races for governor.

In Connecticut, moderate Republican Gov. Jodi Rell announced she would not run again. The Nutmeg State’s first Republican woman governor, the 63-year-old Rell assumed the office in ’04, won a full term handsomely in ’06, and had a 64% approval rating statewide, according to a just-completed Quinnipiac Poll.

“It’s time,” she told reporters, explaining she was ready to retire. Rell and her husband Lou have both had cancer surgery recently, but she insisted they were both fine.

Polls had shown Rell handily defeating any possible Democratic challenger and even conservatives hoped she would run again at the top of the ticket to help the eventual GOP nominee against embattled Sen. Christopher Dodd (D.-Conn.). Now Democrats have the advantage in the open race for governor. The leading contenders are leftist cable TV millionaire Ned Lamont, their ’06 U.S. Senate nominee, and Stamford Mayor Dan Malloy.

Among Republicans, the likely contenders are Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, House GOP Leader Lawrence Cafero, and State Senate GOP Leader John McKinney, son of late Rep. (1970-87) Stewart B. McKinney (R.-Conn.) All are considered moderate in the mold of Rell.

In Colorado, stalwart conservative 33-year-old State Sen. Josh Penry had been considered an appealing fresh face in the race to oppose Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter next year. During a recent interview, Penry spoke freely about possible dramatic Medicaid reforms as well as shutting down entire government agencies to balance the budget. But last week, Grand Junction lawmaker Penry left jaws on the right hanging as he announced he was no longer a candidate for governor. His exit leaves former Rep. (1992-2004) Scott McInnis, a moderate-conservative, as the lone GOP candidate against Ritter. A recent Rasmussen Poll showed McInnis defeating Ritter by 44% to 39% and Ritter edging Penry by 41% to 40%.

Remembering a ‘Mom’ of the Movement

Saturday, Jan. 19, 1985: Three days before Ronald Reagan was inaugurated for his second term as President, I was in the Watergate Hotel room of one of his most durable and loyal supporters: Wisconsin Republican National Committeewoman Helen Bie (pronounced “Bee”), Badger State co-chairman of Reagan’s presidential campaigns since 1976. Among those with her that night in ’85 were daughter Ave, a top aide to former Gov. (1978-82) Lee Sherman Dreyfus and Gov.-to-be (1986-2000) Tommy Thompson, his son Mike (later spokesman for the state GOP), and several young Republicans in town for the inauguration of their hero.

Although all had been out for an evening of revelry before we met up at the Watergate, Helen held us spellbound with her reminiscences of a life in politics. When I mentioned that I had interviewed Dreyfus, she remarked that the college president-turned-governor “probably told you to ‘have a nifty day!’ He’s always saying that.” Bie made real for us Joe McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, Reagan and her husband John, who had died three years before. She also led us in a chorus of White Cliffs of Dover and other favorite songs of hers.

And everyone, including non-family members, called Helen “Mom.”

When I learned of her death on October 23 at age 84, that’s how I remembered Helen Bie — as the “mom” of modern conservative politics in Wisconsin. Whatever the conservative candidate or cause, one could count on Helen’s being there not only to strategize but to lick stamps, canvass precincts, and mobilize conservative enthusiasts into action.

Born in De Pere and a graduate of St. Joseph Academy, Bie got her start as a “Goldwater Girl” in the 1964 primary. After working in various campaigns for state and local candidates, she co-chaired Reagan’s effort in the 1976 primary. Initially, the Reagan high command led by campaign manager John Sears had written off Wisconsin and the candidate himself made only one brief appearance at an airport in the state. But led by Bie and state Reagan co-chairman Don Taylor, the Wisconsin volunteers kept working tirelessly. Coming one week after North Carolina, site of Reagan’s first-ever primary win over Gerald Ford, the Wisconsin’s primary proved a surprise: The Californian won an unexpected 45% of the vote.
Bie would go on to lead Reagan’s state campaigns in his winning races in 1980 and ’84 and served on the RNC from 1980-92. She was also a key quarterback in first-time candidate Dreyfus’s winning bid for governor in 1978 — first helping him win an upset in the GOP primary over Sen.-to-be (1980-92) Bob Kasten and then in November against Democratic Gov. Martin Schreiber.

Along with her political activities, Bie was a leader in community causes ranging from the American Legion Women’s Auxiliary to the National Railroad Museum (on whose board of directors she served). “The face of the Republican Party in Brown County for many years,” is how the Green Bay Press Gazette described her, and it could also be said that Helen Bie was the face of the conservative movement in Wisconsin.

Death of a Trailblazer

“When my Dad went to volunteer on Dave Treen’s first race for Congress in 1962,” recalled my friend and fellow reporter Quin Hillyer, “he had to sit on the floor of Dave’s home in Metairie. Dave was so devoted to politics and had taken so much time from his law practice that he couldn’t afford furniture.”

Quin’s reminiscence about his father, Louisiana Republican National Committeeman Haywood Hillyer, came when he called to say that Dave Treen had died at age 81 after a short illness. Although Treen had a life of rich accomplishment — as U.S. Air Force veteran (1951-52), the first Republican U.S. representative from Louisiana (1972-79) since Reconstruction, and the Pelican State’s first Republican governor (1979-83) in a century — he will probably be best remembered as the man who joined the tiny state GOP back in 1962 and made it the powerful political force it is today.

In 1962, Tulane University Law School graduate Treen took on the thankless task of opposing Democratic Rep. (1940-42, 1946-73) and House Majority Whip Hale Boggs. To everyone’s surprise, Treen drew 33% of the vote in the New Orleans district. Two years later, Treen, who also was working on Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, raised that percentage to 45% of the vote. In his third race (1968), the tireless Republican hit hard at Boggs for supporting open housing, opposing a cut-off of trade with nations trading with North Vietnam, and for backing federal aid to public education — “which will lead to the death of local and parental control of education,” the GOPer warned. That year, Treen won 48% of the vote in a race supporters still say was stolen.

Undaunted, Treen ran for governor in 1971 and rolled up a handsome 43% of the vote against Democrat Edwin Edwards. A year later, running in the neighboring 3rd District (where Democratic Rep. Patrick Caffrey had retired), Treen finally made it to Congress. In 1979, after seven years in Washington compiling a strong conservative voting record, Treen returned home and was elected governor.

The Republican chief executive oversaw an administration free of corruption and with no new taxes. He probably could have handily won re-election over any Democrat except the one he wound up facing: former Gov. Edwards, whose rallying cry of “Let the good times roll” symbolized his free-wheeling reign when the state’s oil economy boomed. Edwards defeated Treen with 62% of the vote. (In later years, the economy tanked and corruption charges caught up with Edwards. Today he is in federal prison.)

His twilight years were not good to Treen. His nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1987 was blocked by Senate Democrats and he lost a comeback bid for a House seat in 1999. But Dave Treen’s legacy in Louisiana lives: a Republican governor, one U.S. senator, strong GOP ranks in the state legislature, and six out of seven U.S. House seats in GOP hands. Many in Louisiana might think of the epitaph for the British architect Sir Christopher Wren: “If you seek his memorial, look around you.”