The `Darth Vader' of reform
Mitch McConnell's stands aren't always popular, but he doesn't really mind
For 15 years, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell has tried like heck to kill campaign finance reform, and he's not about to give up now. Last spring, when President Bush signed the McCain-Feingold law limiting the unregulated political contributions known as "soft money," McConnell led the broad coalition that sued to overturn it. And when a three-judge federal panel issued a mixed verdict on the law earlier this month, McConnell was the first to file a brief appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, which by law must take the case. When the court rules, perhaps later this year, McConnell will be at the center of one of the most important political-speech cases in a generation.
McConnell is also returning to center stage in the fractious U.S. Senate, as he recovers from successful triple heart bypass surgery February 3. His position as GOP whip makes him in effect the Senate's No. 2 Republican, a lieutenant to new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee. But Frist's rocky start is increasing the pressure on McConnell and putting his insider's legislative skills to the test. Frist has had trouble persuading moderate GOP senators to back President Bush's tax plan, and last week McConnell helped nudge Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley toward the president's position. "Frist will be the outside man," says Slade Gorton, former GOP senator from Washington State, "and McConnell the inside man." McConnell foe Chuck Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, says: "Frist is still green compared to a lot of senators. An old hand like McConnell is the kind of guy who would remember: Why didn't you vote with us last time? You need a No. 2 kicking ass and taking names."
Stern and unpretentious, McConnell, 61, brings a razor-sharp focus to his job, a trait he inherited from his mother. As a toddler, McConnell contracted polio, and it was his mom who had to keep him from walking for two years. "I was always able to walk without a limp," he said in an interview, "and that would not have been the case if my mother had not been so disciplined and focused."
"Spending is speech." Critics say McConnell hasn't focused on much of anything in his Senate career except thwarting campaign finance reform. Former aides disagree, citing child nutrition programs as a particular McConnell priority. Still, the war against campaign finance reform is what McConnell is known for. Common Cause dubbed him the "Darth Vader of campaign finance reform," an image he relishes. "He does come off like a very tough S.O.B.," says Lewis. "He almost sticks his chin out, daring people to punch it."
For McConnell, it's simple. In his view, the First Amendment simply does not permit the regulation of money in politics. "Spending is speech," he has said on the Senate floor. Don Simon of Common Cause notes that McConnell is a fierce fundraiser, and he suspects an ulterior motive: "He also thinks that big-money politics is good and works to the benefit of the Republican Party." Still, there's little doubting McConnell's passion. The case challenging the campaign finance law is known as McConnell v. the Federal Election Commission, and it was McConnell who put together the legal team and the diverse coalition behind it.
Born in Alabama, McConnell was raised in Louisville, Ky., the son of that disciplined stay-at-home mom and a father who worked as an employee-relations manager for DuPont. McConnell first fancied a baseball career, but he caught the political bug at age 14, after watching the 1956 Republican and Democratic conventions. He was student body president in high school, at the University of Louisville, and at the University of Kentucky law school. He worked for Sen. Marlow Cook, a Kentucky Republican, then served as a deputy assistant attorney general in the Ford administration. He won two terms as Jefferson County judge, the county's administrator. In 1984, he rallied from 44 points down to beat two-term Sen. Walter Huddleston.
Today, McConnell, the father of three grown daughters from his first marriage, is half of a power couple: In 1993, he married Elaine Chao, President Bush's labor secretary. They like to go to movies and University of Louisville football games, but they're not big players on the Washington party scene. McConnell prefers to focus on his priorities. "You sort out what's achievable and concentrate on that," he says. It's a lesson he learned from his mother.
This story appears in the May 19, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.