Where Middle Of The Road Is The Way To Go
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday September 27, 2000
NORRISTOWN, Pa.-This is a poor town the suburbs forgot, in a rich county that is also forgetting the Republican Party.
Once the hub of Montgomery County, Norristown has suffered while other Philadelphia bedroom 'burbs have soared on malls and office centers and a stream of politically independent young families who, ironically, want less of all. That has come to include a little less of what many see as the GOP's overly pro-growth and antiprivacy agenda, from the party's perceived weakness on protecting the environment to its zealousness against abortion rights.
Like Hempstead Village on Long Island and other ragged camps on the Crabgrass Frontier, Norristown is an ex-ception to the rule of suburban prosperity. The fabled Main Line crashes here. Gone are the mills on the Schuylkill River that kept Main Street shops and bars filled after the pay envelopes were opened. A generation later, welfare does-n't go as far as a good union job. Now, many stores remain boarded, while the nearby Plymouth Meeting mall is bus-tling.
The only thing trickling down is the rain that runs off the hills past ramshackle houses and rotting factories, as it did Saturday when ministers and politicians marched for "community renewal." Among those gathered for an opening prayer outside Holy Saviour Church was Joe Hoeffel, an exception to what is still a rule of suburban politics: GOP con-trol of local, state and federal elections.
Hoeffel, 50, is a Democratic congressman in a district that is 3-2 Republican and where the GOP holds most of-fices, even in Norristown. This is a seat the Democrats must retain as part of their plan to retake control of Congress.
But he can't win unless he gets Republican and independent voters. And in trying to satisfy more fiscally conserva-tive suburban constituents and more socially liberal Democratic powerbrokers, Hoeffel has put himself potentially at risk. (For instance, he opposed the marriage-penalty tax and permanent normal trade status for China, sticking with un-ions and Democratic leaders and, on the trade issue, going against his local Chamber of Commerce and his party's own popular president.) And considering he is a freshman and faces an accomplished moderate, he should be vulnerable.
But Hoeffel doesn't seem to be. Judging by the relatively slow pace of the race, the unexpected weakness of George W. Bush at the top of the ticket and the paucity of spending by special interests, including the parties' national committees, it is shaping up as surprisingly uncompetitive.
And even polite: Dressed for the march in a weekend boomer uniform of khakis, sneakers, a brightly colored sport shirt and baseball cap, Hoeffel was holding an umbrella for a silver-haired man in a tailored suit who looked like he could be a corporate contributor. They were talking not about money, but about a pie-eating contest they were sched-uled to judge at a town fair.
"Have you met Senator Greenleaf?" Hoeffel asked me. That's Greenleaf, as in Republican State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf-Hoeffel's opponent.
If it is more civil than most campaigns, at least so far, it is no casual affair. And it is no cinch, either. Greenleaf's 22 years in the state house, where he is known as a tough-on-crime fiscal conservative but also a supporter of abortion rights, gun control and environmental protection, makes him a credible threat. Ten years ago, no doubt, Greenleaf would have been as certain a winner as a post-Christmas sale at King of Prussia mall.
Hoeffel also knows that if Bush were doing better or if the popular Gov. Tom Ridge had been chosen as his run-ning mate, this race might be scaring the Democratic leaders in Washington.
Now, save for something dramatic, Republicans here also could lose enough suburban state seats to give control of a now-deadlocked lower legislative house to the Democrats. That, in turn, would give the party the power to redraw congressional and legislative district lines that could secure Democratic power for a decade.
One of the great political sea changes of the past decade is that Montgomery, like other suburban counties, is now competitive. The biggest reasons are shifts in demographics (they're more ethnically and racially diverse, thus more Democratic) and changes in the images of the two major parties (the GOP has been seen as tilting toward extremism and a good economic run under Bill Clinton has made Democrats seem more responsible). Like many of its sister dis-tricts, Pennsylvania's 13th has not made up its mind between the parties. None, in fact, has changed its mind more.
In 1992, Clinton's moderate mantra and Pat Buchanan's conservative rhetoric made the Democratic Party safe for this and other cautious suburbs. And after the retirement of a long-time incumbent, voters here elected a Democrat to Congress for the first time in 25 years, TV reporter Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky. But, in 1994, after breaking a very public pledge against raising taxes, she was defeated by Jon Fox in the Republican Revolution.
By 1996, after the Newt Gingrich-led shutdown of government and other tactics to promote a conservative agenda, suburbia was reminded of why it had been shying away from Republicans. Baby boomers, with growing children and aging parents, did not want to see government dismantled. They moved from cities for the sort of services government provides-schools, cops, parks and nursing care-and didn't mind paying for them. What they wanted was value for their money. So they went big for Clinton in Montgomery and other suburbs. And they re-elected Fox, who voted with the conservative leadership to slash funds for popular programs, by only 84 votes.
"The leaders never understood suburban voters," said Fox, who is now practicing and teaching law. "They didn't seem to realize that seats like mine were what kept them in power."
The Democrat whom Fox beat in 1996 was Hoeffel, then a county commissioner. Two years later, as voters con-tinued to reject Republican policies and the party's pursuit of Clinton for lying about Monica Lewinsky, Hoeffel beat Fox by almost 10,000 votes, and he hasn't stopped running.
Whether it is his "Saturdays with Joe" gripe sessions or popping up at every parade, prayer meeting or town fair, Hoeffel has been ubiquitous. "Independent voters want to see energy and commitment," Hoeffel said. Even if they don't agree with you on every position, "they want to see that you understand and care what they care about."
For Hoeffel and other Democrats, such as Long Island Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, staying an incumbent in Republi-can-friendly suburbs means a balancing act between competing forces that risks alienating everybody. Voting against Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China-which could benefit a district rich with exporters- makes him vulnerable to the charge that he is a typical "pro-union, antibusiness liberal." Nixing the repeal of the marriage penalty raises the spectre of a "tax-and-spender," a label that has killed Democrats for decades.
Surviving in a suburb also means knowing when to stay close to the president and when to run away. Hoeffel has done both. During his 1998 bid, he refused to attend a Clinton fund-raiser in Philly, saying he didn't want the president's troubles to "distract" from his own campaign. This year, Clinton raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for him-even after Hoeffel dissed him again by voting against the China trade bill.
But as much as Hoeffel needs the president, he understands that the president needs him for his own legacy. So do congressional Democrats, if they want to control Congress. The question is whether the Democrats have learned from the mistakes of the Republicans who pushed their suburban members to a less centrist agenda.
Ask Jon Fox. Watch Joe Hoeffel.