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Sen. Campbell Crosses Aisle, Joins the GOP

March 04, 1995|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the only Native American in Congress, stunned the political Establishment on Friday by switching his party affiliation to Republican, citing unbridgeable philosophical differences with the Democratic Party.

His switch boosts the Republicans' majority in the Senate, giving them 54 seats to the Democrats' 46.

Beset by disputes with Democrats in Colorado, the maverick freshman said Friday that the final straw for him was the Senate's defeat of the balanced-budget amendment, which he has championed since coming to Washington as a congressman in 1987.

"Five weeks on the balanced-budget debate has brought into focus that my personal beliefs and the Democratic Party are far apart," said Campbell, a one-time Olympic athlete and cattle rancher known for his distinctive ponytail and bolo ties.

"I can no longer represent the agenda that's put forth by the party, although I certainly agree with many of the things the Democrats stand for," he said.

Democrats, surprised by Campbell's defection, immediately asked him to quit and run for reelection as a Republican.

"Out West, all you've got is your word," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). "Even Phil Gramm did it," she said, referring to Gramm's resignation in 1983 after he switched parties while a House member.

But Campbell and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) rejected such suggestions. Campbell's current term expires in 1998.

Campbell, 61, is the second Democrat to cross the Senate aisle since November's election, in which Republicans took control of Congress.

But his defection may have more of an effect on his new party than Sen. Richard C. Shelby's did. Shelby, of Alabama, usually had voted as if he were a Republican even before he switched. But Campbell may have a moderating effect inside GOP ranks because he favors abortion rights and is a staunch defender of some of the social programs being targeted for cuts by the GOP--especially school lunches, which Campbell said pointedly are "the only meals I got sometimes when I was a kid."

"This is what happens when you try to broaden the tent," said Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute congressional analyst, referring to the GOP. "It brings in a pro-choice, pro-social program individual, which means their hope of avoiding conflicts like abortion is lessened a little bit."

Campbell made clear that he has no intention of following the more stridently conservative stance that the GOP has taken since its November triumph.

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"I've always been considered a moderate, to the consternation of the left wing of the Democratic Party," Campbell said. "I imagine my continued moderacy will now be a source of consternation to the right wing of the Republican Party."

On Friday, however, such potential frictions were glossed over as more than a score of jubilant Republican senators staged a virtual pep rally at the press conference called to announce Campbell's switch.

And it could not have come at a more opportune time for the GOP, still reeling from a devastating defeat Thursday when Senate Democrats killed the proposed balanced-budget amendment.

"What a difference a day makes," said an elated Dole.

Referring to Campbell's background, Dole called him "a true American success story."

The Colorado senator was born in Auburn, Calif. His father, a Northern Cheyenne, was an alcoholic. His mother, a Portuguese immigrant, suffered from tuberculosis. He spent part of his childhood in an orphanage.

Campbell has driven a truck, served a stint in the Air Force and, as he put it Friday, "picked tomatoes on my knees." He also has been a teacher and a jewelry designer. A one-time high school dropout, Campbell has a bachelor of arts degree from San Jose State University and attended Meiji University in Tokyo.

In 1964, he was a member of the U.S. Olympic judo team.

At the White House, President Clinton noted that Campbell had voted with Administration positions 80% of the time during the last two years and said he hopes that Campbell will continue doing so.

"I wish he hadn't done it," Clinton said of the switch at an unrelated press conference. "I think it was a mistake."

Campbell voted with the Democrats on numerous high-profile issues, including the family leave act and the "motor-voter" registration bill and had supported lifting the ban on gays in the military. But he also has backed a cut in the capital gains tax, a pet Republican goal. Earlier, Campbell supported then-President George Bush's decision to take military action in the Persian Gulf and voted against a waiting period for handgun purchases.

"He's as independent and as courageous as anyone here," said Colorado's other U.S. senator, Republican Hank Brown.

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