"Why on earth did the [House] Republicans kick out Jerry Lewis?" exclaimed former Rep. Gary Lee, R-NY, when he telephoned this reporter on Dec. 7, 1992, "And what makes this guy Armey so special?"
Lee was upset that California Rep. Lewis, his friend and Republican classmate in the House (1978), had been unseated as House GOP Conference Chairman by the more confrontational Rep. Dick Armey of Texas.
The vote among House Republicans was 88 for Armey to 84 for Lewis, who died July 15 at age 86.
As Lee pointed out, Lewis had a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 84% and, like Armey, was pro-life, pro-gun, and anti-tax.
The difference between the two was that, three years after conservative firebrand Newt Gingrich had captured the No. 2 position (Whip) in the GOP House leadership, lawmakers — albeit narrowly — wanted someone in the No. 3 position (Conference Chairman) equally confrontational toward Democrats.
That was not Lewis. As a state assemblyman in California and later congressman, the genial, easygoing insurance man from San Bernardino had worked closely with Democrat legislators on a variety of projects and issues.
As the Los Angeles Times noted, "In Washington’s hyper-partisan climate, the affable Lewis was well liked by colleagues from both sides of the aisle."
At a time when smog and air pollution plagued California in the 1970’s, Assemblyman Lewis worked with Democrats to craft the bill that established the South Coast Air Quality Management District to fight smog on a regional basis.
Lewis never denied that having the same name as the comedian (whom he got to know while in Congress) helped him at the polls. He was also stopped on the street because someone inevitably confused the silver-haired Lewis with actor Peter Graves, star of TV’s long-running "Mission Impossible."
Following his ouster as conference chairman, Lewis threw his considerable energy into his work on the House Appropriations Committee. In that capacity, he shepherded multi-millions in earmarks — pet projects for a congressman’s district — into his Inland Empire District.
When Republicans captured the House in 1994, Lewis became chairman of the VA-HUD and Independent Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. In that capacity, he oversaw investigations into waste and fraud in federal housing.
He also steered federal dollars to his district for the Seven Oaks Dam and $15 million for the refurbishing of homes repossessed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Redlands, Highland, and San Bernardino.
In 2004, Lewis became the first Californian to serve as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. One of his pet projects was Loma Linda University, which received over $167.2 million and thus made it the top academic recipient of congressional earmarks in the U.S.
By 2010, the practice of earmarking federal funds by congressmen for their district had become a national scandal. Like his friend Sen. Jim Inhofe, R.-Okla., Lewis defended the practice and believed that without earmarks, an unelected bureaucrat would determine where federal appropriations were allocated rather than a congressman from a particular district.
When Republicans took control of the House in 2011, they voted to end earmarking. Lewis could see that his days as "earl of earmarks" were over and he announced his retirement. Earlier this year, the practice of earmarking was restored.
The youngest of six children, Charles Jeremy Lewis was a swimming champion and star basket ball player in high school. After graduation from UCLA in 1956, he went into the insurance business.
But a growing love of politics led him in another direction. He was elected to the San Bernardino School Board and also worked on the campaigns and staff of Republican Rep. Jerry Pettis.
He was elected to the state Assembly in 1968 — a year when Republicans took control and helped then-Gov. Ronald Reagan pursue his vision of a "creative society" for the Golden State. A decade later, after Rep. Pettis’s widow and successor Shirley Pettis decided to retire, Lewis handily took the congressional seat. He had little trouble at the polls for his entire career in Congress.
"I walked precincts for Jerry when he ran for state senate in a special election in 1974," Jim Brulte, former state senator and state GOP chairman told Newsmax. "That’s the only race he lost.
"I called Jerry about nine months ago and told him I just called to say thank you. He said ‘thanks, but for what?’ I told him I grew up in Ontario about 12 miles south of Mount Baldy and most of the days you could never see the mountain.
"I now live in San Juan Capistrano about 78 miles south of Mount Baldy and I can see it almost every day from my bedroom window. And that’s because of the legislation Jerry wrote to tackle air pollution. We then had a great conversation about everything he had done with my pollution."
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