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A Rebel With Many Causes : Politics: Campaign reform. A ban on gifts. Tightened rules for lobbyists. Conservative--<i> very</i> conservative--Rep. Linda Smith is an odd amalgam of energy and extremism.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sunk into the leather couch in her Capitol Hill office, Linda Smith is rifling through a dogeared bundle of papers that she believes could destroy the Republican majority in Congress.

“This is very powerful right here,” says the first-term Republican congresswoman from Washington state, flagging focus-group findings and poll results as if they were vital state secrets.

She chatters on about voter alienation and how the public might judge the GOP: “We couldn’t even cut the heart out of the tobacco lobby, but we could cut the heart out of the Medicare program.”

The point is clear: No amount of “contract with America” re-engineering will satisfy voters until there is real campaign finance reform, until people are convinced that Congress is not for sale to special interests.

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“This institution, under your leadership, is truly on trial,” Smith wrote to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) last month.

The private letter was her response to a dressing-down from Gingrich over her recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post. In that column, she said Congress would fail in its make-over of government if it failed to remake itself: “You can’t perform surgery in a dirty operating room and with a team that hasn’t scrubbed.”

This odd amalgam of energy and extremism has earned this beauty-school dropout and grandmother of six a rating as the most right-wing member of Congress. The New Republic calls her “apoplectic.” The Washington Post calls her “determined.”

So it isn’t hard to envision a moment 20 years ago when high school honor student and “born-again” Christian Linda Ann Simpson defied a teacher’s demand that she read aloud some text about a morally corrupt man of God. Instead, she stood before the students and read “Green Eggs and Ham.”

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And when threatened with expulsion, so the story goes, the same teen-ager coolly let the teacher know that she risked exposure for certain infidelities with a male student. “She backed off,” Smith recalls. “I learned real quick that people with power misuse it--sometimes you just have to make sure you have enough power to counter that.”

Drawing on that early education in politics, Smith, 45, joined other Republican freshmen and reformists in pressuring the majority last week to institute a ban on gifts to representatives and tighten registration rules for lobbyists.

She set aside her own campaign finance bill and elbowed her way into lead sponsorship of an increasingly popular bipartisan proposal that would eliminate or reduce political action committee financing and create incentive-driven voluntary spending limits.

To help pass it, she organized the unprecedented support of three major reform groups--Common Cause, Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen and the League of Women Voters. League president Becky McCain calls Smith “very wonderful to work with,” even though Smith once called McCain’s organization “the League of Women Vipers.” (“It’s really not a good idea to call people names,” the congresswoman says now.)

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More dramatically, Smith formed an alliance with Ross Perot and his United We Stand organization, and brought thousands of conventioneers to their feet in August when she and Rep. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) preached campaign reform.

Perot rushed to the stage to congratulate the pair and shouted to the audience: “Doesn’t this make all of your trudging across the desert without water since 1992 worthwhile? . . . If anybody comes after these two, they’re going to have to go through all of us to get them.”

Smith says she is less a Republican than a populist. Yet she has a strong base in the Christian right and has voted with Gingrich and his revolution 90% of the time. When the newspaper Roll Call gauged the ideology of House members, she ranked more radical than anyone in Congress.

Smith is fond of reminding colleagues that she was a reluctant write-in winner in the 1994 Republican primary. “I was drafted,” she likes to say, using that status of independence to push the bipartisan campaign reform. She and her co-sponsors, Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) and Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.), insist that the proposal must be passed no later than February to avoid being lost in 1996 electioneering.

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Her rhetoric on the issue grows more clamorous each month. In July, she warned of the “appearance of evil.” In August, she vowed to change the Washington “culture.” In September, she urged members to “kick out the money brokers” and called Congress a “sewer” of special-interest finance.

“I looked in my dictionary,” she said earlier this month, “and looked up the word bribery .”

After Gingrich announced plans to study campaign finance reform through May before shaping legislation, Smith called him an “old boy” and part of the “old Establishment” that is stalling. She prompted Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to effuse from the Senate floor that “while I may disagree with Congresswoman Smith on many, many issues, on this one she is right.”

Former Smith aide Bill Kinkade compares her to a crazy gunslinger from the Old West, unafraid to die. “She has no fear of being defeated,” he says.

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But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has targeted her Vancouver-based district for recapture next year, says that if she is crazy, it’s like a fox.

The Democrats plan to win back Congress by lashing incumbents to Gingrich and his mounting negatives in the polls. “When [Smith] is talking about campaign finance reform, she’s looking for something she can split away from Newt Gingrich on,” says Robert Engel, committee political director.

Seattle Times columnist Terry Tang says that crossing swords with the Speaker can only help. “Being a dragon lady challenging conventional wisdom has to be positive,” Tang says.

Smith lives with husband Vern in a three-bedroom trilevel in Hazel Del, a bedroom community outside Vancouver, with Portland, Ore., just across the river. She likes cowboy movies, Tom Clancy novels, shopping at Nordstrom and working out on her NordicTrack.

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Vern is a year older and soft-spoken. He self-effacingly calls himself Mr. Linda Smith and drives trains for the Burlington Northern Railroad. Their church is Assembly of God, where they met and married two weeks shy of Linda’s 18th birthday.

To get away from politics and railroads, they hot-tub in the middle of the night and enjoy the six grandkids during the day. Daughter Sheri is a florist. Son Robert dreams of being a country singer.

Vern Smith might have been the politician except that when the couple, in their 20s and bristling with concerns over abortion and taxes, met with the county GOP campaign chairman, Linda was deemed more marketable. She learned politicking from a library book and has yet to lose an election after 2 1/2 terms in the state House, more than two terms in the state Senate and a run for Congress.

She won statewide notice by leading two successful initiatives to reform campaign finance and taxation. GOP leaders begged her to run for Congress. And is she well-positioned for, and toys with the idea of, a run for governor next year. “I’m actually right now trying to sort it out,” Smith says. "[But] I still have a lot to do in D.C. The system has to be cleaned.”

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Her storybook political success stands in contrast to the shadows of childhood. “I wouldn’t want anybody to go through some of the things that I went through,” she says.

Smith has only vague memories of her biological father, who vanished when she was a toddler amid a blur of rootless migration through more towns than she can remember. “I don’t have a clue as to where he’s at,” she says.

The family was so poor--with four younger stepbrothers and stepsisters and a stepfather who struggled as fruit picker or mechanic--that they lived off government food subsidies and wore thongs to school year-round. To this day, Smith is not certain her family avoided welfare.

She remembers her mother, Delma Simpson, as a towering figure of childhood, a symbol of strength even as her physical health declined. “I realize that what she did was toughen me up in a lot of ways. She wouldn’t take excuses, she didn’t take whining,” Smith recalls.

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As an older sibling, Smith was often left to run the household, manage her classwork and earn extra money clipping toenails for the nursing-home elderly or working in the orchards. The stress gave her an ulcer. “I felt like by 17, I had had more lives than most people,” she says.

No wonder that after her teen wedding came a brief period of rebellion, of “marching with liberals . . . with long ironed hair.” But by the late ‘70s, firmly middle-class as manager of several tax preparation offices for H&R; Block and pregnant with her first child, Smith’s ideology took a major swing to the right.

Those views flourished with the freshmen class of the 104th Congress, “the 73 Martin Luthers,” as Gingrich press aide Tony Blankley calls them.

Smith supports gun rights, voted against Medicaid funding for abortions even in cases of incest or rape (“We don’t kill children because their father is a jerk,” she told the New Republic), sees homosexuality as merely an “inclination” to be avoided, favors property rights over endangered species and wants to roll back welfare as a symbol of “tough love.”

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The Seattle Times, which endorsed her last year, complained in August of Smith’s “slavish loyalty to extreme factions of the Republican Party.”

Now, that extremism is focused like a laser on campaign finance reform. Smith and cohorts Shays and Meehan--using a tactic normally employed by dissident minority factions in Congress--intend to collect enough signatures from members to bypass committee hearings and bring their bipartisan reform measure directly to the House floor.

Says Meehan: “She’s going to be in Newt Gingrich’s face until this bill gets to the floor for a vote.”


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