Congressional politics at the end of the 20th century became more polarized, and for moderates, their plight became unenviable. Constance Morella was one of a shrinking group of moderate House Republicans who had been so numerous during the 1960s and 1970s. From the first, she built her career around her Maryland district, but the 2000 Census offered an opportunity to recast her constituency dramatically. At the same time she found herself tied more closely to her party after the Republicans took control of the House in 1995, making her vulnerable, as Democrats recruited stronger candidates to run against her.
Constance Albanese was born on February 12, 1931, in Somerville, Massachusetts, to Italian immigrants Salvatore and Christina Albanese. Her father was a cabinetmaker, and her mother worked in a laundromat. Constance Albanese attended Boston University, graduating in 1951, and marrying Anthony Morella in 1954. The couple moved to Maryland, where she taught high school. Eventually, they would have three children (Paul, Mark, and Laura) and help raise Constance Morella’s sister’s six children (Christine, Catherine, Louise, Paul, Rachel, and Ursula) after she died. After receiving her MA degree from American University in 1967, Morella taught at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland, from 1970 to 1986. Morella also became active in community organizations and was soon serving in a variety of public positions, finding herself attracted to the Republican moderates, as represented by Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York. She was a member of the Montgomery County commission for women (1971–1975), and in 1974 she ran unsuccessfully for the Maryland general assembly. She was elected to the general assembly in 1978, serving through 1987.
Morella’s first run for a seat in Congress took place in 1980. She ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination against former Representative Newton Steers, Jr. When incumbent Representative Michael Barnes announced in 1986 that he was retiring from the House to make what later was an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate, Morella won the vacant seat over State Senator Stewart Bainum, Jr., with 53 percent of the vote. The district covered much of Montgomery County outside of Washington, with more than 60,000 federal employees and the center of Maryland’s technology industry. Having run on a platform of strong ties to the district, backing from women’s groups, and support for some elements of the Ronald W. Reagan administration’s foreign policy, this election was crucial in setting her style as a House Member.1 A moderate Republican had won election to Congress in a Democratic state. “[The 1986] election shows that Montgomery County voters are very independent,” Morella recalled. “It proves that party label is nothing that’s going to keep people from voting for a person.”2 High voter turnout in her hometown of Bethesda also gave her the edge.3
Morella built her House career by emphasizing those issues of greatest concern to her constituents. She also developed an intense district presence. “Three things are certain in Montgomery County,” noted the Washington Post in 1992, “death, taxes and Connie Morella showing up for every small–town parade and public forum.”4 Morella worked hard to establish a close relationship with her district, developing a reputation for independence while muting her party affiliation in the heavily Democratic district.5 As a result, Morella was frequently on the other side of major issues from the rest of her Republican colleagues. “We’d like her to vote with us more often,” Republican Representative Henry Hyde of Illinois said in 1990. “But to get elected she must reflect her district, and she votes like her predecessors.”6 Her initial committee assignments catered to her district’s greatest concerns: the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. During the first part of her House career, she used these committee assignments as the basis of her legislative activities in areas such as federal pay, parental leave, and health care benefits for the civil service.
Morella’s ability to establish a close nonpartisan bond with her district through serving the interests of her constituents allowed her to win re–election by wide margins. In the early 1990s, Morella consistently won more than 70 percent of the vote. This period of electoral popularity allowed her to begin venturing into more policies that often built on her committee assignments. She staked out positions on health care, calling for more scientific research on cancer and HIV/AIDS and affordable child– care programs. House colleagues called her the “angel of NIST”—the National Institute of Standards and Technology, based in the district.7 She took an interest in programs to combat domestic violence and teen pregnancies. But Morella also began venturing into less safe territory relative to her own party’s legislative priorities. In contrast to many Republican colleagues, Morella supported abortion and reproductive rights. In 1992 she led an unsuccessful effort to remove the anti–abortion plank at the Republican National Convention. “I would like to move the party closer to the center,” she said in 1993.8 While her stand gained her the endorsement of abortion rights groups, Morella strongly believed the issue went beyond politics. In 1996 she said of abortion that “it has to do with one’s personal beliefs, and it doesn’t belong on the agenda for politicians.”9
During her tenure in Congress Morella was frequently mentioned as a possible nominee for governor or U.S. Senator.10 She resisted, however, efforts to position herself to be able to influence the direction of her party colleagues. “Do I seek to be in leadership?” Morella told the Washington Post. “No. I’ll be damned if I kowtow to anyone. I need the independence. And you just don’t have that in leadership. You have to do what they want.”11
When the Republicans captured the House after the 1994 elections, Morella’s status underwent a transformation. Formerly a backbench Member of a minority party, she became chair of the Subcommittee on Technology on the renamed Committee on Science. Because the Republicans eliminated the Committee on Post Office and Civil Service, Morella became a member of the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, renamed the Committee on Government Reform in 1999. Morella later became the chair of its Subcommittee on the District of Columbia during the 107th Congress (2001– 2003). Of her service as subcommittee chair, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C., said, “Everybody loves Connie.”12
Becoming part of the majority was not cost–free for Morella, however. Many of the new Republican Members dismissed moderates like Morella as “squishy” and resented the ability of the senior moderates to temper some of their policy proposals.13 Meanwhile, the still– popular Morella now confronted constituents who were unhappy with what the Republican majority was doing —particularly in the polarizing atmosphere developing between the Republican Congress and Democratic White House. In the late 1990s, Morella’s re–election margins began to erode. Her opponents became better known and more experienced, and they had deeper financial pockets.14 Past supporters of Morella began to listen sympathetically to the argument that a vote for Morella was a vote to keep Newt Gingrich as Speaker. “What I saw,” charged her 1998 opponent Ralph Neas, “was someone who would vote against the Republican leadership when it no longer made a difference.”15 When the Republicans narrowly retained their majority in 1996, the news that Gingrich admitted to ethical violations led some Republican moderates to refrain from voting for Gingrich as Speaker or to vote for other candidates. Morella was among five Republicans to vote “present.”16 In one of the major battles between the Republican Congress and the Democratic President, Morella joined a minority of Republicans who voted against impeaching William J. Clinton in 1998.17 She would recall that Congress “did become more polarized, which is really too bad.”18
The Maryland redistricting for the 2002 elections contributed to the erosion of Morella’s base. Her new district, created by a Democratic state legislature, lopped off the northwestern portion that had supported her most strongly while adding highly Democratic territory to the east. The core of her old district (including her Bethesda base) that she retained was made up largely of voters that were becoming more Democratic over time.19 One state senator proclaimed, “If she runs, she loses.”20 Morella agreed. “They wanted to gerrymander me into retirement.”21 She was widely viewed as the most vulnerable House Republican in the country.22 A potentially divisive Democratic primary between State Delegate Mark K. Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family, and State Senator Christopher Van Hollen, Jr., held out the promise that Morella would face an opponent with a depleted war chest.23 Both national parties concentrated resources on the race, raising $5.6 million, the most expensive race in Maryland history.24
Morella fell victim to one of the vulnerabilities of an incumbent who relies on a close and familiar relationship with the district: the vagaries of redistricting. “Don’t look at me as a symbol,” Morella appealed to voters who continued to like her but were unhappy with her party. “Look at me.”25 Despite national and statewide Republican gains, Van Hollen, the Democratic challenger with the greatest legislative experience, eked out a 9,000–vote victory over Morella in a race where more than 200,000 votes were cast.26 “I had a flawless campaign,” she would recall later. “Can you imagine—the only one I lost was flawless.” Looking back, though, she remained philosophical about her career. “It was a great privilege,” she told the Washington Post a year later. “It was time for me to move on.”27
Morella returned to Montgomery County amid rumors and talk that she would become a member of the administration of President George W. Bush or of Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. In July 2003, President Bush nominated her to be U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.28 After assuming her post on October 8, 2003, she continued to worry about the increasing polarization in Congress.29 Moderates, she mused, “have been endangered, and I hope that changes.”30
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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