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Wright a Major Non-Subject During Lawmakers’ Back-Home Meetings

April 25, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The ethics case against House Speaker Jim Wright dominates Capitol Hill conversation, but lawmakers found out over the weekend that folks back home have other things on their minds.

Wright’s chief accuser, Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., used town meetings in his suburban Atlanta district to cite repeatedly from the House ethics committee report charging Wright with 69 violations.

That was fine, said Bob Norton, a Douglas county real estate broker. But he was more concerned over sewage and other pollution in the Chattahoochee River.

″I’d be more enthusiastic about Newt if he’d get as much impact on the environment and our rivers as he did on Jim Wright,″ he said.

Politicians found reactions like that were commonplace last weekend in their first trips home since the ethics committee announced it had reason to believe Wright had violated House rules.

The panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, issued its equivalent of an indictment of Wright. It will decide later whether to report actual violations to the full House for disciplinary action.

The charges center on allegations that Wright used a sweetheart publishing deal and bulk book sales to evade House limits on outside income, and that he accepted gifts from a friend who had an interest in legislation.

The committee is continuing to investigate an oil well deal that netted a big profit for the speaker even though the well was a dud.

And as a grassroots political topic, many lawmakers are finding the Wright case is a dud, too.

Rep. Jolene Unsoeld, D-Wash., said only newspaper reporters asked her about Wright during her district visit. The freshman congresswoman handled questions from voters on topics including trade, fishing and forestry.

Apparently her tastes mirror her constituents’ - she said she repeatedly fell asleep when she tried to read the ethics panel volume.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who has made several television appearances on the Wright case to take on the speaker’s accuser, received only a single question on the topic at a Wellesley College forum - and that was from a professor.

Paul Barstow, a professor of theater studies, said he was concerned the Wright case would lead to a ″general perception of corruption″ among the Democrats.

Political science major Elizabeth Rosenkrantz, a senior who helped organize Frank’s appearance at the school, said the Wright case was less important to her than issues such as abortion and the federal budget.

″It doesn’t affect me personally,″ she said.

In Fort Worth, Wright’s home district, people probably do take his performance more personally. There, 79 percent gave him a job rating of good to outstanding, according to a poll conducted by the Fort Worth Star Telegram in the days following the ethics committee report.

Nationwide polls released today showed Wright to be far from a front-burner issue.

A Los Angeles Times poll found more than half the people responding were ignorant of the charges. A Washington Post poll found that only a third said they were closely following news about Wright, and less than 40 percent knew his party.

However, the same polls showed a strong majority - 77 percent in the Post survey - believed he should resign if the charges against him are found to be true.

″My reaction is to wait on any direct verdict until all the evidence is in,″ said Kenneth Lakian, a Massachusetts College of Law student who heard a speech there by Frank. ″I would hope the public would give Jim Wright his day in court.″

″He’s guilty as hell″ was the early line from Galen Rottinghaus, a farmer in Democratic Rep. Jim Slattery’s Kansas district.

But a Washington Post reporter who spent two days with Slattery found that the congressman only received a Wright question at about every other meeting.

Slattery says when the issue comes before the full House, he wants to judge Wright on the facts and not on public opinion. But, he acknowledged, ″if the speaker loses the battle of public opinion ... that will significantly weaken his political position back home.″

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