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Rebel With a Cause Abandons the Limelight : Politics: Common Cause's Fred Wertheimer is about to take a break. Will Congress get one? Not a chance.

November 16, 1994|BARBARA SLAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Fred Wertheimer looks like the friendly neighbor in a sitcom--the bald, bespectacled older guy dispensing advice to the nice young folks next door.

But mention his name on Capitol Hill and the reaction can be anything but neighborly.

"He acts as though he has a monopoly on reforming the political process," sputtered Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), a target of Wertheimer's lobby, Common Cause. "The cause of campaign-finance reform will move more quickly with him gone."

After nearly a quarter-century of prodding politicians to change the way they raise money to run for office, Wertheimer announced in October that he was resigning from the leadership of Common Cause.

In his almost 24 years with the self-described good-government lobby, 14 of them as president, he has exasperated and infuriated scores of officials, along the way becoming almost as much an institution in this city as the system he would so like to reform.

Long before Congress-bashing was fashionable, Wertheimer was inveighing against the "corrupt" advantages of incumbency and the "arms-race mentality" of political campaigns.

In October, a combination of Democratic delay and a Republican filibuster killed the best chance yet to limit campaign spending, reduce the role of political-action committees and extend public financing--already provided to presidential candidates--to congressional races.

"If Congress had enacted the (recent) reforms urged on it by Fred Wertheimer, it would have a much higher approval rating from the American people," said Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.), one of Wertheimer's few defenders on the Hill.

But others said Wertheimer was part of the problem, adopting a rigid attitude that delayed agreement until it was too late to pass legislation.

"Fred has worshiped at the altar of public financing for so long that he would sell his first-born son for it," said Rep. Mike Synar (D-Okla.).

Wertheimer said his decision to step down had been made months earlier and that personal criticism wasn't a factor.

At 55, he wouldn't have lasted this long if he were thin-skinned.

Ohio Congressman Wayne Hays, the salty-tongued chairman of the House Administration Committee in the 1970s, used to call him that "baldheaded bastard" from "Common Curse."

"I tend to take almost nothing that happens up there (Capitol Hill) personally," Wertheimer said in an interview at Common Cause headquarters.

"There is an inherent tension built into what Common Cause does. Our issues are quite different than those of other people who worry about clean air or having a dam built. We are talking about your personal life, your professional life, your money and your integrity. It's going to lead to people getting angry with you."

In the aftermath of the Nov. 8 elections, Wertheimer, who will remain at Common Cause until a successor is chosen next year, promised to be just as tough on the new Republican leadership in Congress as he has been on the Democrats.

Even though many Hill watchers believe the chances for reform will be slimmer, Wertheimer said he sees a big opportunity to push Republicans to keep their promises of change.

He said he would focus on the next House Speaker, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), "because he has spent his career attacking the House as a corrupt institution."

*

As Wertheimer talked about the subject that has absorbed most of his adult life, he looked his questioner straight in the eyes with an intensity that was a little disconcerting and gave a sense of how uncomfortable he has made politicians feel.

Born and bred in Brooklyn, a graduate of the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School, he imbibed his reformist zeal from an accountant father who "believed in playing by the rules" and a mother with "a great sense of fairness and justice."

Like so many in his generation, Wertheimer said President John F. Kennedy's call to public service was also a powerful influence.

Ironically, Wertheimer's first goal was to work on Capitol Hill, which he pursued with characteristic determination.

"I got a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission and every six months would send out letters to 20 or 30 congressmen who sounded interesting. Three years later, Silvio Conte wrote back.

"Conte (D-Mass.) was a wonderful representative and a great teacher," said Wertheimer, who worked for the congressman for a few years. "I've had wonderful teachers and mentors and colleagues, like John Gardner and (Watergate prosecutor and former Common Cause chairman) Archibald Cox."

Gardner, a liberal Republican who served as secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Johnson Administration, founded Common Cause in 1970 to open government to greater public scrutiny and participation.

The organization reached its membership peak of 300,000 in the Watergate era and now has about 250,000 members and chapters in all states except Wyoming, Idaho and Alaska.

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