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Former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York: The Last Liberal Republican

Former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York: The Last Liberal Republican

In this March 17, 2006, photo, U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., announces that he will not seek reelection at a news conference in Utica, N.Y. Boehlert, who represented central New York for 24 years, died Sept. 20, 2021. He was 84. (Kevin Rivoli/AP File)

John Gizzi By Thursday, 23 September 2021 08:56 PM Current | Bio | Archive

Upon learning of the death Sept. 20 of former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert at age 84, Newsmax recalled the unlikely role the liberal Republican from upstate New York played in his party's House leadership drama 32 years ago.

On March 23, 1989, House Republicans surprised the nation when they elected Georgia's combatively conservative Rep. Newt Gingrich as their minority whip — and thus launched him on the road to be speaker when the GOP captured the House in 1994.

The vote was 87-85, with Gingrich eking out a win over the favored and more moderate Ed Madigan of Illinois. Hailed on both sides of the aisle for guiding the massive 1985 Farm Bill through the House, Madigan was also the candidate of House GOP leader and fellow Illinoisan Bob Michel.

Two nights later, this reporter spoke to Boehlert, who revealed he had supported the far more conservative Gingrich. 

''It wasn't about philosophy — not at all,'' said Boehlert, a pro-environment, pro-choice liberal Republican who served in the House from 1982 to 2006. Volunteering that although he and fellow moderate Rep. Claudine Schneider of Rhode Island disagreed with Gingrich on many issues, they decided to back him for whip over Madigan because, in Boehlert's words, ''he was a real leader.''

He was right. Five years later, with Republicans winning the House for the first time in 40 years, Gingrich became speaker and quickly pursued a robust conservative agenda.

Within months, Boehlert found himself at dagger's ends with the colleague to whom he was pivotal in making speaker. The Empire State Republican joined with Democrats in thwarting a Republican plan to eliminate the enforcement powers of the Environmental Protection Agency and reduce it to issuing warnings and guidelines to polluters.

''Can you believe it?'' Boehlert told Newsmax. ''Richard Nixon started the EPA, for crying out loud, and Republicans want to scrap it — to protect rich polluters.''

Passionate about the environment, the lawmaker's clashes with Gingrich over the EPA evolved into running disagreements with Republican President George W. Bush over climate change, preserving the Endangered Species Act, and drilling for oil at ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Reserve Act).

Believing that Bush agreed with him that science had to be considered in actions on the environment, Boehlert — by then chairman of the House Science Committee — once told the 43rd president: ''It's your staff that screws up.''

Coupled with his decidedly non-conservative stands on social issues such as abortion, Boehlert and conservatives in his Utica-based district developed considerable animosity. 

The New York Conservative Party, which had given Boehlert its ballot line in his first race in 1982, soon pulled it from the congressman when he gradually moved to the left. He would face opposition from the small but influential NYCP for the rest of his House tenure.

When he stepped down in 2006, Boehlert had a lifetime rating of 38.06 from the American Conservative Union — easily one of the most liberal ratings among House Republicans at the time.

He was a ''Never Trumper'' in 2016 and 2020 and supported the Democratic opponent to the unabashedly conservative Republican who held his former seat, Claudia Tenney.  The two Utica Republicans held each other, as one veteran political reporter put it, ''in minimum high regard.''

An Army veteran and graduate of Utica College, the young Boehlert was public relations manager for the Wyandotte (Michigan) Chemicals Co. He later credited George Romney, father of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Michigan's liberal Republican governor in the 1960s, with stirring his early political aspirations.

Returning to Utica, Boehlert became top aide to Republican Rep. Alexander Pirnie. When Pirnie retired in 1972, Boehlert became one of four Republicans vying to succeed him and lost to State Assemblyman Don Mitchell.

''My downfall was that as much as I was associated with Mr. Pirnie, my wife and kids and I lived in Washington,'' Boehlert later recalled, voicing the stumbling block for just about every congressional staffer who tries to succeed his boss.

Mitchell then asked him to stay on as his top aide. Boehlert eventually relocated to the district and commuted to Washington. In 1979, he was elected Oneida County Executive and three years later, his dream of serving in Congress himself came true.

In the early 1960s, Boehlert — along with future Rep. Bill Emerson, R.-Mo, and future 60 Plus (Seniors) Association President Jim Martin — were, in their late 20s, the three youngest chiefs of staff to House members.

''Only then we were called 'administrative assistants,''' Martin corrected us with a chuckle, reminding Newsmax he worked for Rep. (and future Sen.) Ed Gurney, R-Fla., Emerson for Rep. Bob Ellsworth, R-Kan., and Boehlert for Pirnie.

Boehlert ''disagreed with me on a lot of stuff,'' he said. ''But when he would invite me to lunch at the Members Dining Room, we would talk about things we agreed on, such as my issue — repealing the 'death tax' — or we would just reminisce about the Capitol Hill of our youth. Sherry knew how to be a congressman.''

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

© 2021 Newsmax. All rights reserved.

Upon learning of the death Sept. 20 of former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert at age 84, Newsmax recalled the unlikely role the liberal Republican from upstate New York played in his party's House leadership drama 32 years ago.
Thursday, 23 September 2021 08:56 PM
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