Wamp fresh leadership for sagging Republicans


By Ryan O'Donnell
Published October 15th 2005 in The Tennessean
Despite a vow to return to leadership after his indictment by a Texas grand jury, former House Majority leader Tom DeLay’s days may be over. In the aftermath, a procession of congressmen quietly prepared for their own chance to ascend the ranks. Among them is Zack Wamp of Tennessee, who has made known his intention to run for majority whip, and stands among a new wave of leaders who have the opportunity to revive the party by focusing again on reform and good government.

Wamp would provide a stark contrast to Rep. DeLay. Whereas DeLay engineered Texas’ dubious re-re-gerrymandering House districts in 2003, drawing new Congressional lines that forced out five Democratic incumbents, Zack Wamp was an early cosigner of the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act, a bill put forward this year by fellow Tennessean John Tanner (D) that would establish nonpartisan redistricting in all states. Three years ago, Wamp also played an important role in passage of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill.

This dedication to fair elections and the willingness to work alongside an opposition party to achieve them is sign of strength. In fact, this less partisan spirit may be more wide reaching on the Hill than times would indicate. The acting leader, Rep. Roy Blunt has said that he is “not at all shy about reaching out to people on the outside.” This may be a hard pill to swallow in these days of polarization, but can either party afford not to?

After all, the GOP is creaking under the weight of some seriously damaging publicity. Sen. Frist is defending himself against allegations of Martha Stewart-like corruption, after ditching stock in a company right before it took a dive. Add to that the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, widespread economic uncertainty, the stalled drive to reform Social Security and mounting military deaths in Iraq, and the Republican Party is looking shaky. The worst part? They’re in charge. Since they control both houses of Congress and the White House, they have no one to pass the blame to for problems under their watch.

Strategists might commit themselves to resurrecting DeLay in order to stand tall against the indictment, and satisfy loyalists in the party. But more likely, DeLay will sit faded in the back row of the House, and face a tough reelection campaign next November. Instead of clinging to their tarnished image, a wiser course would be to embrace new faces and new reforms. Though Wamp is as red-blooded a Republican as anyone in the party, he can honestly stand up as this kind of reformer.

The Tanner-Wamp redistricting bill is the perfect foil for Mr. DeLay’s crooked strategy to squash voter choice by gerrymandering it out of the equation. It shows a commitment to fair national elections standards, and honest administration done in the public interest. The bill would put an end to cracking open states mid-decade, and would respect the Voting Rights Act in matters of redistricting. With more and more states pursuing independent commissions for the line-drawing process, the GOP would be looking good if they claimed national leadership on this issue.

Presidential election reform is another area where the Republicans could lead. As RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman travels the country reaching out to African Americans, the party could make good on its commitment to inclusion by changing the presidential primary schedule. Right now, Iowa and New Hampshire, two overwhelmingly white states, have enormous influence in deciding the primary election. With Democrats appearing to fumble a chance to reform their own primary schedule while fighting redistricting reform in California, Republicans have a chance to act first.

The country is observing the political fallout from operating under a one-party system. Because the Republicans have shut out the opposition from decision-making in Washington, particularly in the House under Delay’s careful eye, it’s only natural that all the blame is now theirs to bear. Voters dislike partisanship, and they certainly do not love politicians who seem to personify corruption. Unless the GOP starts embracing new reform and new leadership, the licking they’re taking today bodes poorly for 2006.

Ryan O’Donnell is Communications Director for FairVote – The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization advocating free and fair elections. [email protected]