Keeping Up the Fight

Keeping Up the Fight

At 85, Republican Connie Morella hasn't lost her bite

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Connie Morella in her backyard in Bethesda. Photo by Skip Brown

Connie Morella might be a lioness in winter but she can still roar.

Morella has spent almost 60 years serving Montgomery County—and the wider world—as a teacher, lawmaker and ambassador. Now 85, she issued a strong statement denouncing Donald Trump during the campaign, encouraged fellow Republicans to join her and gave several interviews supporting Hillary Clinton. She still teaches a course at American University on one of her primary passions: the role of women in politics. Women’s issues “were my epiphany,” she tells me. “The women’s movement definitely inspired me.”

That’s not quite the path the former Constance Albanese expected as the daughter of poor Italian immigrants growing up near Boston. Her mother worked in a laundromat, her father was a cabinetmaker, and Morella—the first in her family to go to college—manned the night shift as a reservations clerk for TWA while attending Boston University. She later switched to Pan American and now cracks with typical humor, “Notice both airlines are defunct.”

After she married Tony Morella in 1954, the young couple moved to Washington, D.C., so he could attend law school at Georgetown University. She started teaching at Poolesville High School in 1957, the year the county schools were integrated. “Poolesville High was the only place in the county that had any trouble,” she recalls. “Children were not allowed to go to school by their parents, some of the little ones were crying. It was such a rural community, real farmland, and they just didn’t see blacks except maybe as tenant farmers.”

Teaching jobs followed at Broome Junior High in Rockville and Montgomery College. The Morellas bought a house in the Kenwood Park section of Bethesda, where they still live, and Morella’s political career really began with her appointment to the county’s Commission for Women in 1972. She was picked by County Executive James Gleason, one of her husband’s political allies. But as a burgeoning feminist in her own right, Morella saw many wrongs that needed fixing.

“One of the things I wanted to do was look at equity for women, and I found gross inequities,” she recalls. Women couldn’t get a credit card without their husband’s signature. Help-wanted ads were segregated by gender. There were no female school principals. Even the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad barred women.

Her swelling sense of injustice pushed her to run for the state legislature two years later. “I thought the way to get things done is to have a seat at the table, or else you might be on the menu,” she recalls.

There was one problem. She was a Republican in a heavily Democratic district. Originally a Democrat—she cast her first vote for Adlai Stevenson in 1952—she had changed parties in 1958 because her husband was managing the congressional campaign of a progressive young Republican, Charles “Mac” Mathias, and she wanted to vote for him in the primary.

“I thought I could always change back,” she says, but she found herself drawn to Mathias’ brand of Republicanism—fiscally conservative but socially liberal and deeply internationalist. “In my first race my theme was ‘a Republican in the Montgomery County tradition,’ ” she says. When I ask what that meant, she replies with her signature laugh, rich and raucous: “It meant that I wanted to be independent. And I wanted the Democrats. Even now I still find some Democrats who say, ‘You’re the only Republican I ever voted for.’ ”

She lost her first race but won two terms in Annapolis starting in 1978, and eight years later, she staged a huge upset by capturing the U.S. House seat vacated by Democrat Michael Barnes. When Morella arrived on Capitol Hill there were only 24 women in the House and two in the Senate. She quickly learned a lesson I’ve heard from many female legislators: If you don’t push issues reflecting women’s interests, they die.

Her causes included expanding family and medical leave, and helping victims of domestic abuse gain custody of their children. Probably her greatest legislative achievement was requiring the National Institutes of Health—located in her district—to include women in clinical trials, legislation that was adopted in 1993. Morella worked closely on the issue with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Baltimore, and cooperating across party lines was always a hallmark of her congressional career.

“If I would put in a bill the first thing I would do was find some Democrats to hop on with me, and if they put in a bill I would be involved with them,” she says. “I spent a lot of time at the White House watching Bill Clinton sign bills. Bipartisanship is what the public wants. Most people are centrists, they don’t think their party is right all the time.”

That pragmatic approach is widely disdained in Congress today. Partisan rigidity reigns. Progressive Republicans like Morella are practically extinct, and they were already an endangered species by the time she ran for her ninth term in 2002. The state legislature guaranteed her demise, adding liberal areas of Prince George’s County to her district, and she lost narrowly to Democrat Chris Van Hollen.

On election night she got a consoling phone call from President Bush, who a few months later named Morella as ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, based in Paris. She and Tony, a retired law professor at American, spent four happy years in Europe. But Bethesda is home.

They raised their three children here plus six nieces and nephews, the children of Morella’s late sister who became their legal wards in 1975. Those nine have produced 17 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren and their photos and memories fill the old family house.

The lioness of Millwood Road has not lost her bite or her fight. “Opposing Trump was not a difficult decision for me,” she says. “I thought at first, Do I really want to get into this fray now? And then I thought, Of course I do.”

She was “shocked” by  Trump’s triumph but has no regrets. The fray continues. “Try again,” she tells young women frustrated by the election. “No guts, no glory.” And then the lioness laughs.

Steve Roberts, who teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University, covered Congress for The New York Times. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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