Connie Morella Tells Her Story, Talks Politics with Osher Members
Connie Morella entered the auditorium of Gilchrist Hall with her hallmark smile. She shook the hands of just about every Osher member who turned out for her lecture.
Morella, who had been once been teased for her willingness to attend envelope openings in Montgomery County, served for years in the Maryland State Assembly and the U.S. Congress. Now 85, Morella visited the Johns Hopkins University Montgomery County Campus in September to help the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute kick off its fall semester. In a lecture called “Mending the Broken Branch of Government,” Morella talked about her entry into the political world, her work in Congress and what she thinks today of the legislative branch of government.
Morella was introduced by Osher Director Mary Kay Shartle Galotto, who first met Morella when they both worked at Montgomery College. After the introduction, Morella warmed up the crowd by saying, “I am Connie Morella, as you heard, and I approve this message.”
Morella was an English professor at Montgomery College when she was appointed to the Montgomery County Commission for Women. It was the early 1970s and women were making progress toward equality but still had a long way to go.
As for politics, Morella was a registered Democrat but her husband worked for Republican John Lindsay, who was mayor of New York City, and he knew Charles “Mac” Mathias, a Republican Maryland Senator. Morella wanted to support Mathias in his election, so she changed her registration to Republican so she could vote in the primary. She said she had planned to switch back but met many Republicans she liked, so she remained with the party.
“You all know I’m a RINO – Republican in Name Only,” she said to the Osher crowd.
Morella, who wanted to continue working on women’s issues, said she realized having a seat at the table meant holding elected office, so she ran for the state legislature – and lost. 1974 was a tough time for Republicans to be elected: President Nixon’s Watergate scandal was fresh on everyone’s mind.
“If you lose something, pick up the pieces and progress,” Morella said. She won in 1978 and served two terms in the Maryland House of Delegates. In 1987, she ran for the U.S. Congress and won. Serving a blue district, she said, “kept me on my toes.”
She served in Congress for 16 years, joining women’s caucuses and trying to work in a bipartisan manner on myriad issues. Morella voted against President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, as well as the Iraq War in 2002, one of only a few Republicans to do so.
Morella said Congress began to shift around 1994, when Newt Gingrich became the Speaker of the House. The chamber became more partisan, she said, and gridlock became worse. In 2002, with her district boundaries redrawn, she lost re-election to Chris Van Hollen.
Since then, she has remained active: She served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development in Paris. She also is Ambassador in Residence at American University's School of Public Affairs.
Morella told the Osher members that the effect of gerrymandered districts – districts that are drawn so that members of a particular party are all but guaranteed election – has been essentially to turn primary elections into general elections. Primary voters tend to be more passionate about party politics, voting for candidates more in line with the party. Morella thinks open proimaries, where voters are not required to declare a party affilation, would alleviate that effect.
Her other suggestions for a better legislative branch: have party leadership highlight opportunities where members can work across the aisle; rework the legislative calendar so members are in session for three weeks and in the district for one; reduce the number of subcommittees so members have more time for full committee work; and reform campaign finance to ensure more disclosure and transparency.
Asked whether she plans to become a Democrat, she said she intends to remain with the Republican Party, though she acknowledged she finds some Republican policies “uncomfortable” and thinks the party needs restructuring.
Who will she support for president?
“Hillary Clinton,” Morella said, because of her “experience, understanding, dogged enthusiasm – and look at her opponent.”