Gingrich once ran as GOP moderate early in career
CARROLLTON, Ga. (AP) — The young political candidate sought support from labor unions. He castigated corporations for "raping" the environment. He demanded that big oil companies open their financial books for inspection.
This was not the platform of a liberal Democrat, but rather the agenda of Republican Newt Gingrich when he ran for Congress in west Georgia in the mid-to-late 1970s.
Now as a presidential candidate, Gingrich calls himself a true conservative and derides former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a main rival, as a "Massachusetts moderate." Long before Gingrich reached the national spotlight, he embraced many moderate and even liberal policy positions that would be anathema in this year's White House race.
"The Republican Party has to be the conservative party if it is to mobilize the 61 percent of the country which calls itself more conservative than liberal," Gingrich wrote in a paper kept by his former press secretary, Lee Howell, that examined the prospects for the 1976 election. "However this conservatism has to be moderate if the party is not to be isolated from the bulk of the population which rejects either extreme."
Howell eventually split with Gingrich and has been critical of him over the years. Local newspaper stories about Gingrich's early races include remarks from the candidate that match or are very similar to language in the speeches, news releases and memos from Howell.
Gingrich's early runs for Congress show the beginning of threads that would develop throughout his career. Despite living in Georgia, then a Deep South bastion for Democrats, Gingrich believed that Republicans could assemble a majority in Congress. He also was willing to get mean on the campaign trail, a trait that continued throughout his career.
Gingrich ran as a moderate for several reasons. First, he was challenging a deeply conservative pro-segregation Dixie Democrat. The Republican Party itself was different, too.
"I think it's a different world," said Bill Loughrey, a Gingrich supporter who met the candidate while working in a research office for House Republicans in the late 1970s. He answered questions about Gingrich's old policy positions on behalf of the campaign. "There were a lot of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats back then. You had a very large segment of the Republican Party that was moderate to liberal."
Ever since the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War, Georgia had been solidly Democratic. While national Democrats such as President Lyndon Johnson backed civil rights legislation in Congress, Georgia Democrats supported racial segregation. That included U.S. Rep. John Flynt Jr., a signer of the 1956 "Southern Manifesto" condemning the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that led to racial integration in schools.
"Jack Flynt was the most conservative congressman in Georgia, and you didn't run against Flynt on the right," said Howell, a student at West Georgia College who handled press relations for Gingrich's campaign. "You had to be more moderate than Flynt. You couldn't get to his right."
Gingrich's first two campaigns against Flynt muddled party lines.
Flynt, the Democrat, publicly accused Gingrich of being a supporter of the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, a liberal anti-war Northerner who lost badly in Georgia. Gingrich quickly gave interviews denying that accusation, saying he worked instead for Republican Richard Nixon's campaign.
Gingrich ran the campus's environmental studies program and during his first campaign condemned a plan to build a dam on the Flint River. He had harsh words for corporate polluters while simultaneously showing contempt for environmental regulators.
"Greedy economic giants are raping the environment, polluting the water we drink and the air we breathe — yet all too often the reformers offer solutions that will lead to unemployment and economic chaos," Gingrich said, according to a copy of his 1974 campaign kickoff speech kept by Howell.
Gingrich never uses such harsh language now to describe business interests on the campaign trail. His criticism of the regulators has remained strident. He has more recently called the Environmental Protection Agency a "job killer" that must be replaced.
Local newspaper coverage from the time shows that Gingrich was endorsed in 1976 by the state affiliate of the National Education Association and, his former supporters say, the Communications Workers of America. The relationship with teachers did not last long. By 1985, Gingrich was denouncing the NEA as part of a "left-wing alliance" in a speech he gave to school board officials, according to papers from Gingrich's archive at the University of West Georgia.
At times, Gingrich made statements that might be cheered today by Occupy Wall Street protesters. For example, he denounced the corporate profits accrued by oil companies and said the companies needed to open their records for inspection. He was running in the aftermath of an oil embargo imposed by Arab states to punish the United States for giving military support to Israel. The embargo caused gas prices to skyrocket and led to shortages at the pumps.
"Today, the American oil industry is receiving windfall profits while the American people are paying through their noses for home heating oil and gasoline," Gingrich said, according to a copy of an Oct. 26, 1974, speech that he gave in Carrollton.
He was also skeptical of proposals to deregulate natural gas prices and the airline industry, positions contrary to his free-market stances today.
Gingrich's pronouncements on oil companies caused a mini-crisis with Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, a champion of the GOP's conservative wing who endorsed Gingrich and appeared in Georgia on the candidate's behalf in 1976. Howell said Goldwater threatened to pull his support after reading about Gingrich's tough talk on oil companies.
"He was so livid he was ready to come down to Georgia and withdraw his endorsement and condemn Gingrich," Howell said. "It took some saner heads at the Republican National Committee and some of the other guys in Washington to calm him down, let him know that was something Newt had to do in order to get some attention."
Gingrich's early races in Georgia show his comfort with rough-and-tumble campaign tactics. Former campaign treasurer L.H. "Kip" Carter said that Gingrich took out newspaper ads highlighting Gingrich's involvement in his Baptist church, while noting that his Democratic opponent, Virginia Shapard, was a "communicant" at an Episcopal church. Carter said the goal was to make Shapard seem like a Roman Catholic to rural and overwhelmingly Baptist voters.
Carter said that ad also told voters that Gingrich would take his family to Washington; Shapard would leave her children with a nanny.
"I look back on this and it's embarrassing," said Carter, now a fierce Gingrich critic. "In fact, I've apologized."
Gingrich long told Republicans that winning elections meant getting tough. Howell's files contained an unsigned memo on Gingrich campaign stationary intended for the upcoming 1976 election. It contains a fictionalized account of how Republicans win control of the U.S. House of Representatives and foreshadows several of the tactics that Gingrich used in 1994 when he led the Republicans to their first House majority in 40 years.
The memo urged GOP congressional candidates to run on a national platform. In 1994, Gingrich and other strategists did just that. They created "The Contract with America," a common set of promises endorsed by GOP candidates.
Gingrich's campaign also told Republicans to go negative on a national scale. It wanted to design a common TV ad telling viewers that their local Democratic incumbent was allied with other Democrats then caught up in political scandal.
"Democrats are willing to play ruthlessly hard ball," the memo said. "Note their grim, unfair exploitation of Watergate. Republicans usually hit too soft, too vaguely, and don't connect the issue, the voters' interest, and Democratic wrongdoing."
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