When Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington

Maverick freshman from Washington state champions campaign-finance reform and other causes not always in line with GOP leadership

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LINDA SMITH has come to host a town-hall discussion on simplifying the federal tax system. But many of the people in this Democratic stronghold give the Republican congresswoman an earful on other matters.

''I don't buy it,'' says one working mother, complaining that GOP policies are designed to benefit the rich. ''I don't buy your red suit. And I don't buy your expensive haircut.''

Mrs. Smith manages a smile. ''I'm not going to sell you my red suit,'' she says, drawing laughs from the crowd of two dozen.

As the night wears on, she hears concerns ranging from elderly health-care funding to the rights of the handicapped, plus feedback on the idea of a flat-rate income tax. This is Smith the listener at work.

There is also Smith the street fighter. As a Washington State senator, fresh from a successful 1992 ballot initiative on campaign-finance reform, she wrote and steered a tax-rollback measure to victory. Last year voters nominated her in a write-in ballot as Republican challenger to Jolene Unsoeld (D).

After winning, the grandmother and former manager of H&R Block franchises has not ceased to be a maverick.

Although toeing the party line on the Contract With America, Smith pushes something that Speaker Newt Gingrich and and his band of brash GOP freshmen have not championed: campaign-finance reform.

Most GOP lawmakers, after all, are basking in the donations that follow the party's new status.

But Smith, speaking at another stop to a group of Rotarians, says big government is ''sapping the strength of this nation.'' The only way the budget will be balanced, she argues, is if special-interest money is banned from politics.

Ordinarily one renegade representative wouldn't worry congressional leaders. But in Washington state, Smith has a history of fighting the political establishment and winning. Now she is starting to employ the same populist tactics on the national level.

''The people help me overcome that'' resistance in Congress, she says in an interview.

At the recent Dallas conclave of Ross Perot's United We Stand America, she says people responded to her speech by picking up 20,000 post cards to mail to their congressional representatives urging campaign-finance reforms.

''They're worried to death about us,'' she says of those in Congress who want to protect the status quo. ''I've taken it outside to show them the American people want it.''

''Campaign finance is such a tough nut to crack,'' says David Olson, a political scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle. He notes that even many freshmen House members, theoretically the most radical advocates of change, are busy tapping as much political-action committee (PAC) money as they can on orders from GOP leaders.

Moreover, at the national level there is no ballot initiative process, the method by which Smith won campaign-finance reforms and a tax-rollback when she was a state legislator.

Still, polls show that more than two-thirds of Americans favor the kind of campaign-finance reform she proposes, Professor Olson says.

Her efforts could push the issue to the forefront of 1996 presidential race, if not onto President Clinton's desk, he says.

Specifically, her ''Clean Congress Act of 1995,'' cosponsored by first-termer Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas, would ban PAC donations to campaigns for federal offices. It would bar incumbents from sending government-financed mail to voters within 90 days of an election.

It would also prevent candidates from making large personal loans to their own campaigns and ban meals, trips, and gifts to incumbents.

The problem with PACs, critics say, not only is that they may cause officials to favor special-interest groups, but that the money also helps to skew campaigns heavily in favor of incumbents. PAC's now provide 44 percent of the campaign money used by incumbents, but only 12 percent for challengers.

Those watching her ''Clean House'' slide presentation at the Rotary lunch are generally supportive of her proposals.

''I think it's time,'' says Jim Remington, who runs a sales training business.

''It can get passed'' as public support builds, adds Doug Heay, a high school principal. He says the threat of a third-party presidential candidate will help force change. ''I don't think either party wants Ross Perot back into that race.''

Still, campaign-finance reform isn't the only issue on which Smith has parted company with the GOP majority. Like other Republican freshmen, she opposes added funding for B-2 bombers, for example.

She describes herself as a ''frugal hawk'' on defense, with a balanced budget being priority No. 1. Coalitions of freshmen, often including Smith, have been able to bend the leadership to its will on other occasions.

''I think we're part of a check- and-balance system'' says Smith, who gets around her district in a bright red pickup truck that compliment's her suit.

Analyst Olson calls Smith an ''unorthodox, very principled person who is successful within her caucus, ... but is not reluctant to go outside of it.''

With Washington Gov. Mike Lowry looking vulnerable in 1996, some conservatives here hope Smith will run for governor, but she brushes such talk aside. ''I am doing absolutely nothing to run for governor. Zilch.''

Some observers wonder if she may help someone else run for governor, gaining statewide exposure that would help her to mount a US Senate campaign in 1998.

''That's my biggest suspicion,'' says Chris Stearns, a Democratic Party official in Smith's district.

Her strongest block of supporters, analysts say, is evangelical Christians.

Though identified with conservative causes, including opposition to abortion, Smith says she was a Democrat for many years.

Although she has held elected offices since 1983, Smith takes the role of outsider:

''The only way I'll stay in politics is if I can get something done,'' she tells a lunch crowd. ''This is not my idea of a fun trip.''

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