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Ex-Democrats Encounter Pitfalls : Stiff Opposition Confronts New Republicans Seeking Office

Times Political Writer

“People basically admire a candidate who is undaunted by obstacles and who makes opportunities out of them,” claims William Lucas, the black ex-Democrat who is campaigning for the Michigan Republican Party’s gubernatorial nomination in the GOP’s August primary.

Lucas needs to believe that. His route to the governor’s office in Lansing has been littered with hurdles since he became the most celebrated of the former Democratic office holders whom Republicans have welcomed into their party.

Lucas is one of six erstwhile Democrats who set out this year to run for governor in their new party amid predictions by other Republicans that they would attract a flock of rank-and-file Democrats into the GOP fold in November.

Hard for Newcomers

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But stiff competition in their new political surroundings is making it hard for the newcomers even to get on the November ballot--two of the six have already been eliminated from the running.

Their collective experience is a reminder that, for all the political rhetoric about issues and policies, the political parties are largely driven by individual ambition and held together by the remembrance of past obligations and the promise of new favors.

Ex-Democrat Kent Hance of Texas found out how hard it is to operate in this environment when he finished third in a field of three in the May gubernatorial primary, which was won by former Gov. Bill Clements. “I was the new kid on the block so no one was indebted to me,” Hance explained.

Attracted Attention

Here in Michigan, Lucas’ decision last year to turn Republican attracted special attention because of his race and his position. As executive of Wayne County (Detroit), a job he won with 77% of the vote in 1982, he is responsible for running the nation’s third most populous county--and one of it most trouble-ridden.

No wonder he was invited to the White House, where he was personally welcomed to the GOP by President Reagan, himself a one-time liberal Democrat who joined the Republican Party about three decades ago.

Lucas, 57, relentlessly upwardly mobile since his days as a New York City vice squad cop, expected to feel at home in the GOP not only because of his conservative views on fiscal policy but also because of his personal elan. Likening himself to Dr. Huxtable, the head of the upper-middle-class black family of Bill Cosby’s popular television show that is sometimes criticized as unrealistic, Lucas insisted: “What’s the difference between him and me? His is not a make-believe situation. I’ve done it, and so have thousands of other black families.”

Bitter Rivalry

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Yet neither his own inclinations nor a hearty reception from high-powered national and local leaders could shield Lucas from bitter rivalry for the Republican nomination. Republican Daniel Murphy, executive of Oakland County in the Detroit suburbs, described Lucas’ bid for the governorship as “like joining the church and then wanting to lead the choir.”

Murphy plunged into the race for the nomination himself along with State Rep. Colleen Engler and Richard Chrysler, no relation to the automobile family but a wealthy businessman in his own right. Lucas, the early front-runner, said Chrysler’s lavish spending on television ads accounted for Chrysler’s moving into the lead in the polls in May.

Wife Defaulted on Loan

Lucas, like other switchers, has also had to contend with resentment in his old party. He blames his former Democratic comrades for leaking the news that his wife had defaulted on a federally backed $5,000 student loan while she was attending law school a few years ago. And he accused the administration of Democratic Gov. James J. Blanchard, who is running for reelection, of trying to influence the GOP primary when the state Election Commission blocked payment of matching state funds to Lucas’ campaign.

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Yet for all these difficulties, Michigan political pros still give Lucas a good chance to win in the Aug. 5 primary, if only because of recent damaging revelations about Chrysler, his principal opponent.

Sexual Harassment Suit

It was disclosed that Chrysler and his companies have consistently been in arrears on state taxes, to the tune of at least $130,000. And it became public that Chrysler, who had billed himself as a champion of family values, had settled out of court with a former secretary who had filed a sexual harassment suit against him.

Murphy, who has been trailing far behind in the polls, tried to capitalize on Lucas’ and Chrysler’s problems with commercials seemingly aimed at both his opponents. “Daniel Murphy doesn’t have to cheat to be a winner,” the commercials said. “This year integrity is the issue.”

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Lucas’ only direct boosts recently have been endorsements from the state right-to-life forces and from television evangelist Pat Robertson, who has been promoting his own presidential ambitions in the state. But some Democrats contend that if Lucas wins the Republican nomination, this support could hurt him in the general election by linking him too closely to the divisive abortion issue and the religious right to suit the average voter.

Muck Being Slung

Despite all the other muck being slung in the campaign--or perhaps because of it--Lucas’ race has yet to emerge as a significant issue. But political analysts in the state, noting that Lucas’ claim to be the most electable candidate rests in part on his hope of drawing a big black vote, point out that this could well drive white voters to his opponents.

Some politicians feel that, given the divisive Republican campaign and incumbent Gov. Blanchard’s apparently strong position, the November election will not provide a fair test of Lucas’ appeal to black voters as a Republican, even if he wins the nomination. “You could make a case that each of the candidates has crippled himself in the campaign in a way that has made it much tougher for any of us to beat Blanchard,” says Gerald Hills, Chrysler’s press secretary.

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Lucas and his fellow party switchers in 1986 are hardly trailblazers; politicians have been changing parties in both directions for as long as Republicans and Democrats have existed. But in the Reagan era of American politics, the GOP drive to achieve majority status has given the old custom new significance.

Time Eases Tensions

One rule of thumb that emerges from the experience of Lucas and the other 1986 switcher candidates is that the passage of time helps ease the inevitable tensions.

Thus in Colorado, State Rep. Bob Kirscht, who left the Democratic party in 1981, finished first in a show of strength among gubernatorial contenders at the recent state party convention and is considered to have a good chance in the August primary. As a Republican of more than five years’ standing, Kirscht “doesn’t have it hanging around his neck that he didn’t pay his dues,” said Michelle Davis, executive director of the Republican Governors Assn.

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In Wisconsin, by contrast, Jonathan Barry, a county executive who switched parties only last year, “is getting tagged as an opportunist,” said a GOP strategist. A recent Milwaukee Journal poll showed Barry getting only 8% from likely Republican primary voters while front-runner Tommy Thompson, the Wisconsin House minority leader, had 35%.

Change Brings Problems

This year’s campaign has also demonstrated that politicians who rely heavily on a single cause or constituency face problems when they change to a new party and try to move up.

In Minnesota, Marion (Mike) Menning, a former Democratic state senator who joined the GOP in 1983, had strong backing from the potent forces of the Christian right. But then Menning broke with conservative religious leaders over campaign tactics and, without that base to rely on, failed to win the state party’s endorsement at its recent convention and dropped out of the race.

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Switchers have also discovered that erstwhile adversaries have long memories. In Florida, the front-running Republican gubernatorial candidate, Tampa Mayor Robert Martinez, joined the GOP in 1983. But Oscar Juarez, campaign manager for Lou Frey, a former congressman and longtime Republican who is also seeking the GOP nomination, calls it “appalling” that Martinez campaigned for Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 and 1980 presidential elections. “You have to earn your wings,” Juarez said.

Republican converts are concentrating on governors’ seats this November in large part because 27 of the 36 governorships at stake are now held by Democrats, creating an unusually rich opportunity for the GOP. But among Senate candidates, Republicans also expect to have at least one converted Democrat as their candidate--former Democratic Rep. James D. Santini of Nevada, who seems assured of nomination.


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