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. …