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A Rising Voice in the Revolution : Politics: As she ascends the Republican ranks, outspoken moderate Rep. Susan Molinari may be just what the GOP needs to stay in the majority.

March 06, 1995|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A year ago, Susan Molinari was about to hold a meeting of her close political advisers to discuss the possibility of her challenging then-Gov. Mario Cuomo when she found herself standing before her bathroom mirror with a brush stuck in her hair.

"How am I going to convince anyone I'm qualified to be governor of New York with a brush sticking out of my head?" she recalls thinking as she stood there in her sweat pants and sweat shirt.

It was a round brush, the type that creates curls unless it tangles up with hair and creates disaster. With guests arriving any minute, the 36-year-old congresswoman from Staten Island quickly grabbed a scissors and cut away.

"It was just so typical of Susan," says her best friend, Julie Wadler. "She'll be plugging along, things will be going great and then disaster happens."

Sometimes the disasters are tragic, Wadler says, recalling the time Molinari's uncle had a fatal heart attack at her first big fund-raiser.

Today, however, Susan Molinari is not courting disaster. Quite the opposite. Now she is on a roll, perhaps on the wave of her life.

In December, she was elected by Republican members of the House of Representatives to be vice chair of their caucus. This gave her one of eight Republican leadership positions in the House, making her perhaps the most powerful woman in that chamber. This means Molinari gets to attend the best meetings--the sessions where Speaker Newt Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey and the rest are fomenting a Republican revolution. In that crowd, Molinari is something of an oddity.

Almost to a person, the leaders are highly conservative, Southern, white men. As a younger, slightly hip, outspoken Republican woman who is a supporter of abortion rights, anti-gun and has cast a few moderate votes during three terms in Congress, Molinari stands out.

Which explains in part why they want her around, says Ed Gillespie, spokesman for Armey.

"We instantly recognized that while Susan Molinari may not agree with the majority of (the caucus), she's very politically astute," he says. "She's also good with media, she has a sense of what matters in the Northeast, and better than anyone at the table she understands women voters."

Certainly party leaders haven't forgotten the damage done after the Houston convention in 1992, when only the cries of the right-wing echoed through the country.

"Susan definitely represents a point of view that's important in maintaining our majority status," Gillespie adds.

In addition to her leadership role, Molinari was handed powerful appointments after the GOP took control of the House after the November elections. She has a coveted seat on the Budget Committee, which intends to hack its way through the federal budget to reduce the deficit, and she chairs the transportation and infrastructure subcommittee on railroads, which controls Amtrak's fate.

Yet Molinari's most important role may be as a voice of the revolution.

So when House Republicans hit the halfway mark in the 100-day race to enforce their "contract with America," it was Molinari who roared through prime time with the talking points.

"Congress has gone from 16% approval rating to 48%," she told a CNN moderator during a debate with Democratic point man Rep. David Bonior of Michigan. "It's working, we're working, and the American people approve." When Bonior groused about GOP policies hurting the middle class, Molinari blurted out: "Oh, here we go again," and referred to the GOP's proposed $500-per-child tax cut.

It apparently hasn't gone unnoticed by GOP leaders that Molinari is a favorite of TV producers and has spots on the news shows aimed at younger audiences. And for obvious reasons. She is spunky, self-effacing and a plain-talking New Yorker who easily cuts through pomposity with a smile, laugh and clever sound bite.

"Susan is very knowledgeable in communications strategy, which is an area quite frankly not many in our leadership have a strong hand in," says Rep. Bill Paxon of suburban Buffalo, who happens to be Molinari's new husband.

*

Paxon, 40, is as tall, buttoned-up and conservative as Molinari is short, funky and moderate. Still, on Capitol Hill they're the senior class Prom Queen and King, a power couple moving into the same league as the Clintons, Doles or Matalin and Carville.

In addition to a personal giddiness over their July marriage (her second, his first), her synergy with Paxon has enhanced Molinari's celebrity and her political leverage.

Ambitious Republicans might think twice about crossing her now that she is married to the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, who is credited with raising $18 million for the party and with creating the strategy that put the GOP over the top in November.

"Susan's smart and tough and very popular," says a Republican admirer. "But having Bill behind her makes her a little more lethal."

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