On parade days in southwest Washington state, a van crowned by a giant bucket overflowing with suds of blue and white balloons joins a drill team of retired women in cleaning attire. Together they enjoin the crowd to clean up Congress. Welcome to Linda Smith’s (R-Wash.) neighborhood.
Smith shot into Congress in 1994 on the strength of a two-week write-in primary campaign, followed by a general campaign that unseated a three-term liberal Democrat. The Christian Coalition, rapidly gaining strength in the suburbs around Olympia, threw its weight behind Smith, championing her anti-gay, anti-tax, and anti-abortion views.
In the 104th Congress, she has voted 92 percent of the time with House Majority Leader Dick Armey, including votes to carve into Medicare, lower the earned-income tax credit, and give states sole control over whether to fund abortions.
But Smith’s first term will be best known for her advocacy of one issue: campaign finance reform. “These old guys [in D.C.] are taking half a million dollars and then rushing off to vote,” Smith told Mother Jones. “I challenge those guys to escape from the Washington fundraising culture.”
That kind of talk, and the finance reform bill she tried to push through Congress, won Smith the support of such unlikely cohorts as United We Stand America, Common Cause, and Public Citizen.
Smith decided to push for campaign reform after last year’s vote to continue various tobacco subsidies. “I saw the American people’s values go up in smoke,” Smith says. “I saw you had to do radical surgery, stopping the flow of money.”
Smith quit taking PAC money in mid-1995. (Her donors, including such groups as Boeing and the National Association of Home Builders, had given her a total of $20,400.) So far in this election cycle she has raised some $400,000 — almost $300,000 of it in individual contributions of less than $200 each.
Smith remains solid in her Democratic district, and says her stand on campaign finance is the reason. “People read that I don’t take PAC money, and they know I need them. And so they come to the fundraisers and the kazoo band concerts, and they help me.”
That doesn’t include the Republican leadership, many of whom Smith has rankled. Understandable, considering House Speaker Newt Gingrich has often argued that there ought to be more money in campaigns, not less. “With my numbers in a Democratic district, they have no reason to work against me,” says Smith. “But they’re not putting out an effort to help me — and I haven’t asked either.”