LAST WEEK'S STUNNING political suicide of the party in power—Republicans caterwauling like losers and their leader resigning in disgrace after they win the election?—conversely gives new life to the political career of former Seahawk Steve Largent, now R-Oklahoma. In past years, the evasive Hall of Famer proved himself an elusive GOP team player. As one of Newt Gingrich's pet protégées (the House Speaker sat front row center at Largent's Hall of Fame induction), Largent led 10 other party members in a failed blindside move to oust Gingrich in 1997. With Largent and others plotting a new blitz recently, the speaker toppled himself last week, becoming the biggest midcampaign el foldo since Ross Perot. Newt's collapse also catapulted Largent toward a House leadership role (along with Bellevue Rep. Jennifer Dunn). Will the Year of the WomanizerturnedYear of the Wrestler now become the Year of the Wide Receiver? The early money's on Largent to take over as House Majority Leader, beating back Rep. Dick Armey because—is this a party with a death wish or what?—Armey's not conservative enough. You mean the born-again, pro-life, school-vouchering, Medicare-ending, gun-loving, welfare-loathing, flat-tax Texan who co-wrote the Contract with America? That Dick Armey? Even his own uncle, Joe Armey of West Seattle, calls nephew Dick "an extremist of the far right."
OK then, how conservative is Largent? The telegenic 44-year-old congressman continues to run circuitous routes in the minds of those who still think of him as that engaging, clean-cut all-America footballer and Wheaties cover boy (he still has a link to the Seahawks home page on his House Web site). Perhaps some remain confused by his 1996 performance in opposing I-655, the proposed Washington state ban on bear baiting. In TV ads, the Bible Belt congressman fondly recalled family hunting trips and emotionally pleaded with voters to reject this un-American attempt to handicap the intrepid local game hunter. His mild-mannered image helped advance the argument (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) that armed pursuers had a right to bait, trap, and shoot bears and unleash hounds to track down cougars because it was "sporting."
In fact it was just another pro-gun issue for Largent, typical of the political patterns he runs on the Hill: deep right (or as Roll Call described his route, "next stop: Genghis Kahn.") The American Conservative Union, US Chamber of Commerce, and the Christian Coalition report the wealthy ad agency owner and congressman (worth $5.8 million) votes in favor of their preferred position around 90 percent of the time while Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and NAACP say he votes against their positions 90 percent of the time. As the conservative Weekly Standard admiringly depicted him last year, "Largent embodies the conservative combativeness of the Republicans elected to the House in the class of 1994. He's a fervent opponent of abortion, gay rights, gun control, and the National Endowment for the Arts. On economic issues, he introduced legislation to scrap the tax code, he'd like to phase out Social Security, and last year he strongly opposed raising the minimum wage. He's also devoutly religious. In a speech following his 1995 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he thanked 'my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ' and said, 'Football is what He gave me the physical gifts to do for a time, but my faith really defines who I am, as a husband, a father, and a man.' Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition's former executive director, calls Largent 'the genuine article.'"
HOW GENUINE? Let Largent himself tell you. He:
*Believes homosexuality is an "evil practice" and "controllable," that gays "choose" their sexual orientation, and that "many homosexual practices are immoral and downright repugnant." He supported elimination of the marriage tax penalty not so much because it was unfair but because "we should encourage marriage between men and women," and adds, "Any employer or property owner should be able to refuse to hire, rent, or enter into a contractual agreement with any person whose behavior is morally offensive to him."
*Opposed taxpayer subsidies for the National Endowment for the Arts because the funding lacked "constitutional authorization," that "with a national debt in excess of $5.4 trillion, we simply cannot afford to fund individual artists [for $95 million]," and because some art has contained "pornographic and blasphemous content."
*Equates biblical with political faith, observing, "As a father of four children, I am not about to allow liberal bureaucrats or irresponsible judges who believe in everything from abortion to homosexuality to handing out condoms to 10-year-olds to usurp my God-given rights."
*Says, "The pro-life issue is the issue of my heart. It's who I am," with most his views stemming "from my walk with Christ."
And despite the inner-party turmoil, he's still a GOP team player, Largent often says. He drove that point home at last year's Republican picnic hosted by Seattle businessman Tom Stewart, the party bankroller who got caught trying to buy a local election and also paid a $1 million fine for selling tainted beef.
Because of Stewart, the supposed law-and-order congressman Largent said, "Our country is a better place."
He meant for fellow conservatives, pre- sumably—and maybe meat-eating liberals.