WASHINGTON — House Democrats, moving to rebuild a party leadership devastated by ethics controversies, Wednesday elected former presidential candidate Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri to be their new majority leader and chose the highest-ranking black in Congress, William H. Gray III of Pennsylvania, to the No. 3 post of Democratic whip.
Following their victories in lopsided ballots, both congressmen pledged to work with new House Speaker Thomas S. Foley to restore a sense of party purpose and unity that was strained during the months-long investigations of top Democratic officials.
"We are going to move this House away from partisan wrangling, rancor and bitterness and reassert an agenda for progress," Gephardt said.
The move of Gephardt and Gray into top leadership posts is expected to soothe somewhat the interparty tensions inflamed by the announced resignations of former House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and whip Tony Coelho of Merced, both of whom had been embroiled in ethics controversies.
Gephardt and Gray, as well as Foley, have reputations as conciliators able to bridge differences between opposing viewpoints and make back-room legislative deals. None are regarded as partisan infighters, as Wright and Coelho were.
Even House Republican Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia, whose formal complaint about Wright's financial affairs led to the Speaker's downfall, had kind words for the new Democratic triumvirate.
"I think a team of Foley, Gephardt and Gray is a very competent, articulate and energetic team," Gingrich told reporters. "It's a first-class team."
Most Democrats, even some who backed losing candidates in the election by the House Democratic Caucus, appeared happy with the outcome of the contests for the No. 2 and No. 3 party positions. They voiced hope that the new team would refocus the House's attention from internal and ethical problems to legislative business.
As veteran Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.) put it: "The new Democratic leadership now has the right stuff to end the divisiveness we've been through for the past several months. We're ready to go to work to provide solutions to this country's needs."
Gephardt, opposed by Rep. Ed Jenkins of Georgia, won by the overwhelming margin of 181 to 76. The Missouri congressman pledged in advance that he would not seek the Democratic nomination for President in 1992 if he became the majority leader.
Gephardt, who ran unsuccessfully for the 1988 presidential nomination, entered the race for the second-ranking Democratic leadership position only after Coelho, who was a candidate for the job, shocked his colleagues by announcing he would resign from the House in the wake of mounting questions about his $100,000 investment in a junk bond.
Jenkins, who said he ran partly as a reminder that one-third of House Democrats were in the conservative wing with him, said Gephardt is probably the single most popular member of the House.
"It's a relief that he has no (ethical) problems," said Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), commenting on Gephardt's unsmirched reputation despite the intense scrutiny he received during the presidential campaign.
Wins on First Ballot
Gray, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, moved up to the whip position by a first-ballot victory over two opponents, Rep. David E. Bonior of Michigan and Rep. Beryl Anthony Jr. of Arkansas. The tally was 134 for Gray, 97 for Bonior and 30 for Anthony.
Supporters of the Philadelphia Democrat were concerned that his candidacy might suffer because of a controversy over a recent Justice Department leak concerning an FBI investigation of his office. Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, however, issued a statement asserting that Gray was not the target of the inquiry, which reportedly involves allegations of a no-show employee on a House committee staff. Thornburgh said Gray had cooperated fully with the FBI.
"The caucus has spoken," said Gray, buoyed by his showing despite the controversy.
In a move to heal any wounds caused by the election bids, Foley announced, after consulting with Gephardt and Gray, that he would retain Bonior in the post of chief deputy whip for the rest of this congressional session.
Bonior, while obviously disappointed by the outcome, congratulated Gray by saying: "You are a classy, energetic, intelligent, helluva guy."
Gephardt also told reporters that he expected that Southerners, now unrepresented in the top leadership, would be included in such bodies as the Democratic steering and policy committee where the Speaker has the power to appoint 12 of its 20 members.
Gray's victory will create a vacancy in the caucus chairman's post that will be filled shortly. Two candidates--caucus vice chairman Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Barbara B. Kennelly of Connecticut--already have announced they will seek the fourth-ranking party post.
In his acceptance speech, Gephardt said he realized there was work to be done in rebuilding House Democrats' spirits and cohesiveness.
"These past weeks have been difficult days. . . , " he said. "Many of you are discouraged by the rancor and bitterness. Many are skeptical about our ability to accomplish anything because of the thicket of differences on important issues among ourselves and between us and the Republicans." But he said he and the other leaders were confident the problems will be overcome.
RELATED STORIES--Gephardt an insider. Page 20
Profile of Gray. Page 20
VETO OVERRIDE FAILS--House Democrats could not muster enough votes to pass the minimum wage bill. Page 22