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A Rebel With Many Causes : Politics: Campaign reform. A ban on gifts. Tightened rules for lobbyists. Conservative-- very conservative--Rep. Linda Smith is an odd amalgam of energy and extremism.

November 23, 1995|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Sunk into the leather couch in her Capitol Hill office, Linda Smith is rifling through a dogeared bundle of papers that she believes could destroy the Republican majority in Congress.

"This is very powerful right here," says the first-term Republican congresswoman from Washington state, flagging focus-group findings and poll results as if they were vital state secrets.

She chatters on about voter alienation and how the public might judge the GOP: "We couldn't even cut the heart out of the tobacco lobby, but we could cut the heart out of the Medicare program."

The point is clear: No amount of "contract with America" re-engineering will satisfy voters until there is real campaign finance reform, until people are convinced that Congress is not for sale to special interests.

"This institution, under your leadership, is truly on trial," Smith wrote to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) last month.

The private letter was her response to a dressing-down from Gingrich over her recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post. In that column, she said Congress would fail in its make-over of government if it failed to remake itself: "You can't perform surgery in a dirty operating room and with a team that hasn't scrubbed."

This odd amalgam of energy and extremism has earned this beauty-school dropout and grandmother of six a rating as the most right-wing member of Congress. The New Republic calls her "apoplectic." The Washington Post calls her "determined."

So it isn't hard to envision a moment 20 years ago when high school honor student and "born-again" Christian Linda Ann Simpson defied a teacher's demand that she read aloud some text about a morally corrupt man of God. Instead, she stood before the students and read "Green Eggs and Ham."

And when threatened with expulsion, so the story goes, the same teen-ager coolly let the teacher know that she risked exposure for certain infidelities with a male student. "She backed off," Smith recalls. "I learned real quick that people with power misuse it--sometimes you just have to make sure you have enough power to counter that."

Drawing on that early education in politics, Smith, 45, joined other Republican freshmen and reformists in pressuring the majority last week to institute a ban on gifts to representatives and tighten registration rules for lobbyists.

She set aside her own campaign finance bill and elbowed her way into lead sponsorship of an increasingly popular bipartisan proposal that would eliminate or reduce political action committee financing and create incentive-driven voluntary spending limits.

To help pass it, she organized the unprecedented support of three major reform groups--Common Cause, Ralph Nader's Public Citizen and the League of Women Voters. League president Becky McCain calls Smith "very wonderful to work with," even though Smith once called McCain's organization "the League of Women Vipers." ("It's really not a good idea to call people names," the congresswoman says now.)

More dramatically, Smith formed an alliance with Ross Perot and his United We Stand organization, and brought thousands of conventioneers to their feet in August when she and Rep. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) preached campaign reform.

Perot rushed to the stage to congratulate the pair and shouted to the audience: "Doesn't this make all of your trudging across the desert without water since 1992 worthwhile? . . . If anybody comes after these two, they're going to have to go through all of us to get them."

Smith says she is less a Republican than a populist. Yet she has a strong base in the Christian right and has voted with Gingrich and his revolution 90% of the time. When the newspaper Roll Call gauged the ideology of House members, she ranked more radical than anyone in Congress.

Smith is fond of reminding colleagues that she was a reluctant write-in winner in the 1994 Republican primary. "I was drafted," she likes to say, using that status of independence to push the bipartisan campaign reform. She and her co-sponsors, Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) and Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.), insist that the proposal must be passed no later than February to avoid being lost in 1996 electioneering.

Her rhetoric on the issue grows more clamorous each month. In July, she warned of the "appearance of evil." In August, she vowed to change the Washington "culture." In September, she urged members to "kick out the money brokers" and called Congress a "sewer" of special-interest finance.

"I looked in my dictionary," she said earlier this month, "and looked up the word bribery ."

After Gingrich announced plans to study campaign finance reform through May before shaping legislation, Smith called him an "old boy" and part of the "old Establishment" that is stalling. She prompted Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to effuse from the Senate floor that "while I may disagree with Congresswoman Smith on many, many issues, on this one she is right."

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