A Rising Voice in the Revolution : Politics: As she ascends the Republican ranks, outspoken moderate Rep. Susan Molinari may be just what the GOP needs to stay in the majority.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A year ago, Susan Molinari was about to hold a meeting of her close political advisers to discuss the possibility of her challenging then-Gov. Mario Cuomo when she found herself standing before her bathroom mirror with a brush stuck in her hair.

"How am I going to convince anyone I'm qualified to be governor of New York with a brush sticking out of my head?" she recalls thinking as she stood there in her sweat pants and sweat shirt.

It was a round brush, the type that creates curls unless it tangles up with hair and creates disaster. With guests arriving any minute, the 36-year-old congresswoman from Staten Island quickly grabbed a scissors and cut away.

"It was just so typical of Susan," says her best friend, Julie Wadler. "She'll be plugging along, things will be going great and then disaster happens."

Sometimes the disasters are tragic, Wadler says, recalling the time Molinari's uncle had a fatal heart attack at her first big fund-raiser.

Today, however, Susan Molinari is not courting disaster. Quite the opposite. Now she is on a roll, perhaps on the wave of her life.

In December, she was elected by Republican members of the House of Representatives to be vice chair of their caucus. This gave her one of eight Republican leadership positions in the House, making her perhaps the most powerful woman in that chamber. This means Molinari gets to attend the best meetings--the sessions where Speaker Newt Gingrich, Majority Leader Dick Armey and the rest are fomenting a Republican revolution. In that crowd, Molinari is something of an oddity.

Almost to a person, the leaders are highly conservative, Southern, white men. As a younger, slightly hip, outspoken Republican woman who is a supporter of abortion rights, anti-gun and has cast a few moderate votes during three terms in Congress, Molinari stands out.

Which explains in part why they want her around, says Ed Gillespie, spokesman for Armey.

"We instantly recognized that while Susan Molinari may not agree with the majority of (the caucus), she's very politically astute," he says. "She's also good with media, she has a sense of what matters in the Northeast, and better than anyone at the table she understands women voters."

Certainly party leaders haven't forgotten the damage done after the Houston convention in 1992, when only the cries of the right-wing echoed through the country.

"Susan definitely represents a point of view that's important in maintaining our majority status," Gillespie adds.

In addition to her leadership role, Molinari was handed powerful appointments after the GOP took control of the House after the November elections. She has a coveted seat on the Budget Committee, which intends to hack its way through the federal budget to reduce the deficit, and she chairs the transportation and infrastructure subcommittee on railroads, which controls Amtrak's fate.

Yet Molinari's most important role may be as a voice of the revolution.

So when House Republicans hit the halfway mark in the 100-day race to enforce their "contract with America," it was Molinari who roared through prime time with the talking points.

"Congress has gone from 16% approval rating to 48%," she told a CNN moderator during a debate with Democratic point man Rep. David Bonior of Michigan. "It's working, we're working, and the American people approve." When Bonior groused about GOP policies hurting the middle class, Molinari blurted out: "Oh, here we go again," and referred to the GOP's proposed $500-per-child tax cut.

It apparently hasn't gone unnoticed by GOP leaders that Molinari is a favorite of TV producers and has spots on the news shows aimed at younger audiences. And for obvious reasons. She is spunky, self-effacing and a plain-talking New Yorker who easily cuts through pomposity with a smile, laugh and clever sound bite.

"Susan is very knowledgeable in communications strategy, which is an area quite frankly not many in our leadership have a strong hand in," says Rep. Bill Paxon of suburban Buffalo, who happens to be Molinari's new husband.

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Paxon, 40, is as tall, buttoned-up and conservative as Molinari is short, funky and moderate. Still, on Capitol Hill they're the senior class Prom Queen and King, a power couple moving into the same league as the Clintons, Doles or Matalin and Carville.

In addition to a personal giddiness over their July marriage (her second, his first), her synergy with Paxon has enhanced Molinari's celebrity and her political leverage.

Ambitious Republicans might think twice about crossing her now that she is married to the National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, who is credited with raising $18 million for the party and with creating the strategy that put the GOP over the top in November.

"Susan's smart and tough and very popular," says a Republican admirer. "But having Bill behind her makes her a little more lethal."

And a little more photogenic: She and Paxon were one of People magazine's "10 Most Romantic Couples of the Year." They were also featured in media across America last fall campaigning together for Republicans in 84 districts in 36 states.

"Having us there, you know, the newlywed couple, was a nice hook to get people to attend events and attract media for the candidates," says Paxon, ever the strategist. A consummate insider who is more interested in being a campaign manager than in seeking higher office, Paxon widely promotes his wife's career.

"I could see her running for U.S. Senate or governor or even the White House," he says. "She's a great horse--a thoroughbred on the political track."

With offices across the hall on the fourth floor of the Rayburn building and similar meeting schedules, it is not unusual for them to run into each other. Weekends they go home to districts at opposite ends of New York.

Molinari apparently gets most of the ribbing about the relationship. The other day as she raced to the House Gallery to vote, a middle-aged congressman turned to her in the packed Members Only elevator and said, winking, "Hey Susan, what's cooking?"

"Not much," she said with a sort of Gidget-goes-to-Congress innocence.

Could he have been asking what's cooking in the leadership or in the budget committee or in New York City? No, he made it clear he wanted to know if she had any announcements .

Molinari puts a more earnest spin on this than she needs to.

"These people have been through a lot with Bill and me," she says. (Paxon proposed on his knee in the House Gallery in 1993; Molinari immediately bellowed, "Get up off the floor!")

"Really," she adds, "they're like 433 members of our extended family. They've probably shared more tender moments with us than our families."

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It's not surprising that Molinari has critics among conservatives in her party and, of course, among Democrats, particularly in her New York City delegation, where she's the lone Republican.

When she ran for vice chair of the conference, the National Right to Life Party loudly objected. GOP party conservatives also fought her candidacy, making it clear that her support of abortion rights, her votes with Democrats on social issues and her concern for pork barrel projects for her district disqualified her from being in the room with the leadership.

"Susan Molinari could well exert a centerward pull on a Republican leadership that needs--now more than ever--to be aggressive and distinct from the Democrats," according to a December article by a National Review political reporter. But Molinari campaigned aggressively and won 124 to 100.

And GOP insiders say she has yet to blindside Gingrich et al. with her charms and pull them center, as the National Review worried.

Which is exactly what irks Democrats.

"The Republicans don't become any more pro-choice by having her in the room," says one Democratic congressman. "She's the apotheosis of style over substance. She doesn't change a thing. The press has made her what she is today."

Molinari has been eviscerated for not rebelling while her party talks about gutting programs that are essential to New York's constituents. Recently, when she supported the GOP decision to strip $40 million from Penn Station's renovation project to have money to pay the military, Molinari was battered by the city media.

"Molinari will at some point have to make an actual choice between Newt and New York," wrote the political columnist for New York magazine. "A winning smile won't excuse her."

Indeed, these are times in Congress when it is nearly impossible to be fiscally conservative yet socially moderate. And for politicians such as Molinari, who has sometimes made an art of striking that delicate balance, the future becomes tricky.

"We're dealing with a desperate situation--a $4-trillion debt. Something has to go. And there is going to be pain and there is going to be pain in New York City and in Staten Island."

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Staten Island is used to pain if you listen to its inhabitants. A year doesn't pass when the people aren't agitating in a new crusade for the more suburban of the five boroughs to break away from its more inner-city counterparts. In addition to its secessionist fever and its desire to close the Fishkill landfill--the largest in the nation--Staten Island is best known for its ferry, like the one Melanie Griffith rode to work on in "Working Girl."

And, Staten Island is known for its Molinaris.

The congresswoman's grandfather S. Robert Molinari was always running for something in the 1940s--and usually losing. The congresswoman's father, Guy, was always running others' campaigns until Susan, his only child, turned 16 and he began running himself--becoming a state assemblyman, a congressman and now borough president.

The relationship between father and daughter over the years has been a source of intense pride, competitiveness and occasional tension. When Susan was in Catholic high school, her father tried to get her to take a forensics course. But she refused because it would have interfered with cheerleading. "I still supported her," he says, "and, boy, was I a proud dad when her group won the state championship."

New tension came during her undergraduate years at the State University of New York at Albany (where she also received a master's degree), notably when she sent a three-page letter home explaining why she supported a woman's right to abortion. "He didn't like it," she says. One weekend she went to Washington to march for abortion rights and he went to Buffalo for an anti-abortion rally.

Molinari's mother, Marguerite, was on her side. "Mom always gives to NARAL and just loves Kate Michelman," she says.

But abortion and differences on other issues didn't keep the father from supporting the daughter. When she ran in 1985 for the New York City Council, Frank Fossella, the incumbent and a friend of her father's, pleaded with Guy to get Susan out of the race. But he refused, and now proudly recalls that first challenge: "Susan's district has the largest Italian American percentage of any district in the country. It wasn't the easiest thing for a young kid in her 20s to challenge an older male Italian." She won.

The father says elected office produced a remarkable transformation in Susan: "She had never had the degree of self-confidence you would like to see. But in a short period she became sure of herself."

He makes it sound so natural, but the struggle was enormous, Molinari says. "I was 27 years old. Barely. I was the only Republican among 34 Democrats, which made me minority leader. Ha. I didn't know the operation and there I was in a room debating a $27-billion budget."

Fred Cerullo, New York City's Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, was then her 23-year-old chief counsel.

"She just learned how to navigate the system," he says. "People automatically liked her and she worked with them. While she was extremely loyal to her party, she was never afraid to take positions on merit that may have not followed the party line. It really built respect in the opposition."

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Once both Molinaris were elected officials, they became more involved with each other.

"They have a very close and loving relationship," Paxon says. "It is also complex. They can be working on a project together, but then they'll compete to see who can get the press release out first."

In 1989, after a decade in Congress, Guy Molinari decided to give up his seat and Susan ran in a special election to replace him. Having served five years on the City Council, she had an independent reputation. But having her father, the borough boss, pushing hard didn't hurt. She handily won.

More recently, her father has complicated her political life.

In 1992, he angered party officials in Washington by telling reporters Dan Quayle was a "liability" to President George Bush's reelection. When the press asked Susan Molinari to comment, she was circumspect but ended up backing her father's remark.

Last year, he told reporters even before she had a chance to make up her mind that she might run for governor. (She didn't.) And this past fall he created an ugly firestorm by pronouncing that Democrat Karen Burstein, a local judge who led in the polls over her GOP opponent, Dennis Vacco, should not be state attorney general because she is a lesbian. At first Susan Molinari avoided commenting, but eventually she supported his right to bring the issue out front. Burstein narrowly lost.

Wadler, Molinari's best friend, who also works for Molinari's husband at the RNCC, sees the bigger picture in these mini-dramas in Molinari's life: "There are times that everybody's parents make them cringe. Susan's no different from anybody else. Her father just does it in public."

Wadler also sees this as another aspect of Molinari's habit of constantly confronting disaster. "She'll get upset, go for a run, take the dog for a walk, have a cigarette. She takes it all in stride and plods along.

Molinari herself talks about absorbing low points. Here, she recalls the weekend of her wedding when she learned that a close friend, who had been a political mentor to both her and her father, had died of cancer.

"We were all devastated," she says. "But we had to mix it up with happiness.

"There's a lot you juggle--a lot of bullets you dodge every day," she adds. "Every so often one hits you. Despite what people like to say about me, this has not been a cakewalk both politically and personally. So I know I'm tough enough for anything that comes along in the future."

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