Edited by Thane Peterson
The Oct. 7 forum at the veterans' hall in Waterbury, Conn., was billed as a debate between Representative Gary Franks (R-Conn.) and his Democratic challenger, state Senator Jim Maloney. The only problem: Franks didn't bother to show up. The audience was furious with the three-term incumbent. "His sense of arrogance is overwhelming," complained Martin Greenfield, a retired manufacturer's representative for a toy company. "Franks gives you the impression that as long as he goes along with Newt Gingrich, he can ignore the little people of his district."
Call the Nov. 5 election "The Revenge of the Little People." Franks was the most seasoned Republican House incumbent to get the boot from voters back home. And it happened because he ignored former House Speaker Tip O'Neill's old adage that "all politics is local."
There was a strong sense among many swing voters in Franks' diverse and politically volatile western Connecticut district that the incumbent had forgotten about them. They complained that his office did not return calls seeking assistance. And they said he was more interested in his roles as a national political celebrity (he is one of just two black Republican representatives), Phil Gramm for President surrogate, and Newt Gingrich confidant to take care of the mundane duties of his office. "I always voted for Franks," says independent voter Patrick Flanagan of Ridgefield. "But not this time. He took the people for granted."
Maloney, a moderate Democrat, skillfully capitalized on those public perceptions. His campaign office featured a poster for Franks' 17-city national tour to promote his autobiography. The book trek only reinforced the notion that Franks was "both out of touch on the issues and out of time when it comes to his constituents," says Maloney.
Franks had a big edge in campaign cash -- helped by a Gingrich fund-raising appearance that netted him more than $150,000. But even the Speaker's intervention may have boomeranged. Concludes Maloney: "He did himself far more than $150,000 in damage in the process. He made the case for us that he's with Gingrich."
In the end, voters opted for a Democrat who favors term limits, a balanced-budget amendment, and several other elements of Gingrich's Contract With America. Franks may have been able to survive his association with the unpopular Newt. But a lot of voters wouldn't forgive his lack of association with them.
By Richard S. Dunham in Washington
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Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.