A Leading Player in the Move to the Right : Politics: A former Democrat turned Republican, Charles T. Canady is working to abolish affirmative action, curtail abortion rights and bring back school prayer.


It should have been his moment in the limelight, having just successfully steered through the House a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration. But Charles T. Canady was lost, unable to find his way to the gathering of reporters for a post-victory news conference, a Capitol Hill rite.

No big deal. There will be a next time.

The 41-year-old Florida Republican--a onetime Democrat turned conservative--is playing a major role in carrying out the Republican social and cultural agenda. As chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, he is charged, for example, with developing the House bills that would abolish affirmative action programs, curtail abortion rights and bring back school prayer.

Like other chairmen of key House committees and subcommittees who were handpicked by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Canady hews closely to conservative views on most of the issues before Congress, a result of convictions he has held since childhood, his father says.


At a time when party-switching has become downright fashionable, Canady made that jump long ago, confounding friends and supporters alike by relinquishing a prized subcommittee chairmanship in the Florida House to join the GOP minority because of philosophical incompatibility with the Democratic party.

That move also cost him a suite of offices with a view. But as he soldiered on in a windowless, basement office in Tallahassee, Canady never lost sight of his vision of an America where abortion is outlawed and prayer is permitted in schools.

Now that perseverance is paying off in a big way for Canady and his like-minded colleagues in the House.

Still, most of Canady’s opponents--inside and outside Congress--know little about him.

“When I mention his name, most people get him confused with a Kennedy,” says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), a Judiciary subcommittee member who has clashed repeatedly with Canady.

“All I know is, he’s one of those politicians who embraces the radical right’s views on social issues and is becoming kind of a leading star in their drive to turn back the clock on personal and religious liberties,” says Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. “He’s the front person for the radical right--and a danger to our personal and religious liberties.”


Such harsh words from his critics do not ruffle Canady. With the understated but confident smile of a man who knows he has the votes, Canady says: “We have fundamental differences. I didn’t come here to please them.”

And he chuckles dismissively at their accusations that he is but a foot soldier for the Religious Right, even if many of his constituents are members of the Christian Coalition. “I met Pat Robertson only once--and that was years ago, when I was a Democrat,” Canady says.


Canady grew up as the son of a longtime administrative assistant to then-Sen. Lawton Chiles, now Florida’s Democratic governor.

As a boy, he worked in Chiles’ Senate campaigns, once operating a handmade silk screen to make posters.

“Since a very young age, he’s been around the political process,” says Charles E. Canady, the congressman’s father. “A lot of his interests evolved from being around politicians.”

Not a natural athlete, Canady became a precocious and avid reader. “Anything he wanted to know about, he’d pull out the encyclopedia,” says the elder Canady. His son relied on the encyclopedia so much that a primary schoolteacher urged him to expand his reading horizons.

A regular churchgoer since childhood, Canady, a Presbyterian, also developed an early interest in social issues.

“All these issues now--he felt very strongly about way back,” his father says. “For as long as I can remember, he was vehemently opposed to abortion. But he wasn’t a crusader.”

Not inclined to indulge in self-analysis--at least for public consumption--the congressman says he cannot recall any particular incidents or epiphanies that turned him into a confirmed activist. “It’s all just a part of my overall philosophy,” he says.

Canady also is a tightwad. Congressional records show that he spends less on staff salaries and office expenses than almost any other member of Congress.

“He’s very cautious about taxpayers’ dollars,” his father says.


Canady received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Haverford College in 1976 and three years later earned a law degree from Yale. Returning to Lakeland, Fla., he specialized in civil appellate work. He served in the Florida House from 1984 to 1990, for a time as majority whip and as head of the appropriations subcommittee on criminal justice.

He switched parties in 1989 largely because of irreconcilable differences stemming from the failed presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis, then the liberal governor of Massachusetts.

“A number of my friends asked me how I could run on the same ticket,” Canady recalls. “After a while, I realized that my own answers weren’t particularly convincing--even to myself.”

In 1990, Canady ran for the state Senate but lost. Two years later, he was elected to the House and last year was reelected by an impressive 65% majority. He represents a conservative but Democratic district in central Florida that is one of the nation’s leading citrus-producing regions.

In Congress, Canady has largely hewed to the party line, although he occasionally strays off the reservation--for instance, voting last year for congressional lobby reform and the crime bill.

Canady’s subcommittee also has jurisdiction over lobby reform, but he is awaiting marching orders from Gingrich, whose highly publicized agreement with President Clinton to form a study commission has clouded the legislative outlook.


In his spare time, bachelor Canady still enjoys reading--and hiking--though “nothing exotic” on either count, he says.

But Canady has little time these days for the Grand Canyon or the Canadian Rockies, for his agenda is far from assured.

Like so many other House initiatives, the flag amendment that Canady floor-managed through the chamber faces an uncertain future in the less doctrinaire Senate.

And it is not clear that Canady can muster the necessary two-thirds majority vote in the House for passage of the proposed “religious liberties” constitutional amendment, which would allow for freer religious expression in the schools, including prayers.

A Los Angeles hearing on the proposal, set for last month, was canceled because of an 11th-hour scheduling conflict. Still, the cause got a big boost days earlier when the President took up the call, declaring that some school districts have gone too far in banning religious activities. Clinton plans to issue federal guidelines explaining what the law permits.

On the abortion front, Canady’s subcommittee on July 18 approved a bill to ban “partial-birth abortions,” a particularly controversial technique that Canady says borders on homicide; abortion rights groups say it is merely a first step in an all-out drive to ban all abortions.

Aside from Canady’s deep-seated convictions, there’s another explanation for his missionary zeal and headlong rush to enact the GOP’s social agenda.

As a strong believer in congressional term limits, Canady has pledged to serve no more than four terms. By the year 2000, he’ll be history.

And for Canady’s beleaguered opponents, that day couldn’t come a day too soon.