As they used to say in a long-ago cigarette commercial, Gene Taylor, the Democrat from the Gulf Coast, would rather fight than switch.
Of course, Gene Taylor would eschew any resemblance to a tobacco ad, but in the face of many temptations, the 5th District congressman won’t switch to the Republican Party. He is emphatic that he is remaining a Democrat, albeit a thorn in the party’s side.
Consistently, he opposes such traditional Democratic stands as abortion rights, gun control and free trade. He has openly said he will not support President Clinton’s re-election.
But as a white Southern Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, he is one of a dwindling number. Just six years ago, 59 percent of the House members from the South were white Democrats. Now only 28 percent are.
The ruggedly independent, staunchly conservative Taylor, at 42 still boyish-looking with a shock of blond hair swept across his handsome face, insists that the Democratic Party, for all of its shortcomings, still best serves the interests of the average working person. Besides, to switch parties as some other of his Southern colleagues have done, would obviously be for a political advantage, and Taylor thinks that’s the wrong reason.
Simply put, as Taylor told this column by phone from his office in Washington, “I find I can still vote my convictions and respect the feelings of South Mississippians as a Democrat.”
Despite the Republicanization going on in Mississippi and the Republican bent of the Gulf Coast, Taylor is still a strong favorite to retain his House seat in November. His likely Republican foe then will be former state Rep. Dennis Dollar of Gulfport, a party switcher from his legislative days as a Democrat.
There were never any partisan votes he remembers in the Mississippi State Senate, says Taylor, “and I don’t like the partisanship up here.” Particularly distasteful to him, he says, is how GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich operates, reminding him of the heavy-handedness of the his old Mississippi nemesis, Lt. Gov. Brad Dye. Taylor shook up the state Legislature back in the mid-1980s by challenging in court the powers exercised by the lieutenant governor.
So absolutely does Gingrich control the votes of House Republican freshmen, says Taylor, “they may as well give their voting cards to him.” Taylor calls Gingrich “the most corrupt Speaker we have ever had.”
He recalls that the GOP Speaker held a fund raiser in the U.S. Capitol, while harvesting contributions from special interests at the same time an environmental bill affecting them was being debated in the House.
Taylor is proud to be one of the “Blue Dogs,” the cadre of fiscally conservative Democrats who supported the GOP-backed balanced budget goals, but without tax cuts or deep spending cuts in social programs. Taylor charges that when the Blue Dogs offered their own balanced budget plan that carried $50 billion less debt than the Republican leadership plan, Gingrich warned any Republicans who voted for a petition to discharge the bill from committee would be punished.
Aside from Gingrich’s method of operating, Taylor resents the Georgia Republican posing as a leader of a party which espouses morality and family values. Gingrich, Taylor contends, is a “draft dodger,” and a wife and family deserter.
Obviously Taylor plans to make Gingrich a chief devil in the campaign (that was done effectively in the recent Oregon special election for Congress) and will hang the speaker around Dollar’s neck. “He (Dollar) is saying that what we need is one more Republican in the House,” says Taylor. “Do we really need another vote to put in Newt Gingrich’s pocket?”
A Catholic, Taylor was elected in 1989 as a pro-life candidate and has always voted against any legislation providing federal funds for abortions. His personal belief is the only instances where an abortion should be permitted is the result of rape or incest or to save the mother’s life.
Just as he was back in the Mississippi Senate, Taylor is an enigma to lobbyists. I recall that when Taylor was in the Senate, if he ever went to lunch or dinner with a lobbyist, he either picked up his own check or (horrors!) paid for the lobbyist’s meal.
Taylor had sharply disagreed with President Clinton over sending troops to Bosnia, and voted against NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement pushed by the administration.
Several months ago he drove around with a “Draft Powell for President” bumper sticker on his pickup, referring to the Persian Gulf War hero.
Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947.