Last of the moderate Republicans?

A former congresswoman returns to her old haunts, asking big questions

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Benner
Globe Correspondent / May 11, 2008

Connie Morella, a former eight-term Republican congresswoman, has spent the last few months back in Boston, where she grew up, went to school, and married before moving to Maryland, where she would become known as the most liberal Republican in Congress.

Since coming back, Morella visited her 101-year-old cousin, Chata Lauro, who lives in the house where Morella was born on Alpine Street in Somerville. She ate at a favorite haunt, the Rosebud Diner in Davis Square. She took in a Red Sox game with her husband, Anthony, an East Boston native, and visited old pals from Somerville High and Boston University.

But she has been working on a larger mission, too. Morella last week finished a semester as a fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, leading a study group on a question she considers central to the future of the country: Is there still a place at the table for moderate Republicans?

The former Constance Albanese grew up in a family of blue-collar Democrats — both parents were Italian immigrants — and became a Republican almost by accident, she said.

Living in suburban Washington, D.C., while her young husband attended law school, she changed her party registration just to vote in a primary election for Charles ‘‘Mac’’ Mathias, a liberal Maryland Republican who fought for civil rights and antipoverty programs and against the Vietnam War, which was still raging.

‘‘I realized I could fit very nicely when I looked at what the progressive Republicans were accomplishing,’’ Morella said. ‘‘They reached across the aisle to get things done.’’

The Morellas wound up staying in Maryland instead of moving back to Massachusetts, and raised nine children. Connie Morella became an English teacher before getting involved in local and, eventually, state politics. Now 77 years old, she is still a registered Republican, but observers say she never strayed too far from her Boston Democrat roots.

First elected to Congress in 1986, she famously clashed with Newt Gingrich, resisted her party’s efforts to impeach President Clinton, and was one of six Republicans who voted against authorizing military action against Iraq in 2002. The right disapproved of her positions on abortion, gay rights, and other issues.

In 1995, midway through Morella’s 16 years in Congress, Gingrich became the first Republican House speaker in 40 years, and he seemed to oppose everything Morella stood for, criticizing fellow Republicans for working with what he called ‘‘the opposition’’ — that is, Democrats.

‘‘For eight years, I was a minority in the minority party,’’ Morella said. ‘‘For eight years, I was a minority in the majority party.’’

Perhaps the harshest criticism from within her own party came during the debate over Clinton’s impeachment.

‘‘I would have things put on the windshield of my car,’’ she said. ‘‘People would call my kids, ‘Tell your mother to vote this way or that way.’.’’

Those experiences inspired Morella’s Harvard study group, ‘‘The Endangered Species: The Moderate in the House of Representatives.’’ Her weekly talks included titles such as ‘‘Is Bipartisanship A Pipe Dream?’’

Morella said she worries that what she calls the party of Lincoln today champions so-called wedge issues to scare up votes — at the expense of good government.

‘‘Why do I care if someone has a partner of the same sex? Some of those issues they’ve picked up don’t really belong in the political arena,’’ she said. ‘‘They’re private, personal issues, and when you start touting that, you’re losing your vision of what’s important for the country and what people want.’’

Morella said a number of things can remove the combative tensions from politics, including more public scrutiny and a will to work together.

‘‘People are perceiving rancor that is partisan, they perceive these people don’t work together,’’ she said. Candidates ‘‘say they’re going to do something, reduce the budget, and they don’t.’’

Morella thinks Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, tripped up his own presidential bid with calculated posturing on abortion, stem cell research, and other issues.

‘‘When he thought it was important to be more to the left, he did it,’’ she said. ‘‘But when he didn’t, he went to the right.’’

Morella likes the current crop of presidential contenders. She singles out Democrat Barack Obama’s stress on unity, but hints that she will eventually endorse her own party’s presumptive nominee, John McCain.

‘‘I’m encouraged by the candidates,’’ she said. ‘‘I think there’s a need to bring both sides together, and they all realize this is what people want.’’

Yet the answer to her own question — is the moderate Republican becoming extinct? — remains open.

‘‘I’m hopeful it will not be extinct,’’ she said. ‘‘Right now I don’t know what kind of promise I hold out, except that there are a lot of things happening.’’

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