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Freshman House Democrats Have Their Feet to the Fire : Congress: First-termers make up half the list of 'endangered incumbents.' They face the public's growing disdain for officeholders.

October 30, 1994|SAM FULWOOD III | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTH ROYALTON, Ohio — Facing a surprisingly difficult fight to retain his seat in Congress, Rep. Eric D. Fingerhut (D-Ohio) recently exhorted his supporters to work even harder at convincing friends and family members to vote for him in the Nov. 8 midterm elections.

"If you think about the number of people you will come in contact with over the course of the next few weeks, just think about how you can influence the election," he said, pleading for them to "network" on his behalf in this predominantly Republican section of suburban Cleveland. "Tell them it matters because (I am) doing things that matter, changing things in Congress," he said.

Why was this man pleading so hard? Not only does he enjoy all the traditional advantages of incumbency, he also made a name for himself as leader of the reform-minded freshmen Democratic legislators in the 103rd Congress. Isn't that what he promised to do when he ran and won back in 1992? Yes it is. But despite Fingerhut's best effort, he could well lose this year's election in Ohio's 19th District to GOP challenger Steven LaTourette, a popular local prosecutor.

And Fingerhut is not alone. According to a recent study by Congressional Quarterly, first-term members of the House account for half the names on the "endangered incumbents" list, with 31 freshmen among the 63 House members judged to be in "competitive races." Democrats outnumber Republicans on the list, 23 to 8.

Swept into office two years ago under President Clinton's battle cry of "change," first-term Democratic reformers are now finding themselves struggling against a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment among voters who are expressing disdain for Clinton and disgust for lawmakers who promise more than they deliver.

Additionally, many of the more outspoken Democratic reformers hail from politically unstable congressional districts that were created by reapportionment for the 1992 elections.

In Utah's 2nd District, for example, incumbent Karen Shepherd is locked in a tight race with Republican Enid Greene Waldholtz, whom she defeated, 51% to 47%, in 1992. Like Fingerhut, Shepherd gained notice in Washington as a reformer, but it had little practical advantage back home. Waldholtz has scored with voters by pointing to Shepherd's votes supporting the Clinton budget that raised taxes--something candidate Shepherd promised not to do.

Such arguments find favor with Utah conservatives, who are not fond of Clinton or his policies.

Other Democratic first-termers encountering similar challenges include Karan English of Arizona, Leslie L. Byrne of Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio's 13th District and Bart Stupak of Michigan.

But Fingerhut stands out in the pack, if only because he led the crusade by Democratic freshmen to limit the role of lobbyists, strengthen controls on campaign contributions and otherwise reform the way Congress has traditionally done business.

"I am reluctant to talk to the national media because of all the attention I've received and how little it does to help me in my district," he said in a recent interview between campaign stops.

Fingerhut is now rushing about his district, talking up congressional reform and declaring his independence from any orthodoxy in Washington. That was his message two years ago and he is pleading with voters to give him another shot to complete the job he started.

In many ways, however, talking up reform is less pressing than defending himself against charges of being a do-nothing incumbent. As a result, his tough reelection campaign is a template for the challenges faced by other first-term Democrats who went to Washington with a mandate for change, only to discover how much easier it is to promise than to deliver.

"Yeah, we're all in competitive races," Fingerhut said. "But that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with the substance of the races and local politics."

Fingerhut's argument is that voters are angry at the inability of Congress to make substantive reforms that would give the institution credibility to make tougher laws. Congressional leaders--yes, his Democratic leaders--wasted a prime opportunity to show a skeptical public that lawmakers were willing to get their own house in order, he said.

"That would have made all the difference. That would have put us in a position of strength from which we could have tackled and won on the tough choices, choices on health care, welfare reform and the budget," he said.

He admitted that the GOP "is having a good year" but he chalked that up to "hard, cold politics. . . . It would have been the same for anyone sitting in this seat."

Indeed, local party officials said the race is competitive in large part because the district--a 130-mile stretch of northeastern Ohio, encompassing parts of downtown Cleveland, some southwestern suburbs and all of Lake and Ashtabula counties--is a mixed bag of political ideologies where hard-core Democrats make up only a razor-thin majority.

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