Texas Democrat Phil Gramm Hears the Call of a Different Drummer—and Switches Partners
01/24/1983 at 01:00 AM EST
For months the Congressman from Texas had been getting phone calls, hints, even hostile looks from his fellow Democrats on the Hill. Finally, on Jan. 3, the first working day of the 98th Congress, Phil Gramm's long-expected punishment was meted out. The Democratic leadership denied Gramm what should have been a routine reassignment to a seat on the House Budget Committee. Within hours Gramm resigned from Congress, but he announced to voters in his heavily Democratic Sixth Texas Congressional District, between Houston and Dallas, that he would promptly run for his own vacated seat—as a Republican.
The flamboyant switcheroo was typical of the 40-year-old Lone Star maverick. Two years ago he had antagonized his party's leaders by embracing a pro-Reagan economic stance and becoming one of the conservative Democratic "boll weevils" who are known in Washington for sometimes bucking the party line. More ominously, Gramm co-sponsored budget bills to trim the federal outlay by $130 billion in fiscal 1982-84 and stoked the ire of the Democratic hierarchy. "Some guy in the Speaker's office once said, 'The problem with Gramm is he doesn't know when to give up,' " says Gramm. "Well, I didn't go to Washington to give up. I went to win. My people pay me to win, not make a mock protest." After hearing of Gramm's switch, President Reagan staged his own protest. "I think it's disgraceful," he said, "that a man who puts country before politics is thrown out of his party."
It would have been easy, Gramm says, to declare himself a Republican and simply "move to the other side of the aisle." But he claims he wanted to give the voters in his district a chance to pass on his new colors. "I've got to dance with the ones what brung me," Gramm says. A noble thought, though the election is almost a formality. Local Democrats will be hard pressed to mount a strong opposition to Gramm by the Feb. 12 special election date set by Texas' outgoing Republican Governor, Bill Clements. In any case, it would probably be futile to draw a bead on the three-term legislator, who is generally admired by his constituents as someone man enough to, as a voter once put it, "tell Ted Kennedy and all of them to kiss off."
Raised in Columbus, Ga., Gramm was the last of the three children of a career Army sergeant who was confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke when Phil was 5. Initially inept at school—he failed two early grades—Gramm says he read the classics at his father's knee and eventually blossomed at the Woodward Military Academy near Atlanta. He earned a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Georgia in 1967 and has written several books. In 1970, teaching at Texas A&M, Gramm met Wendy Lee, now 38, while interviewing job applicants for the economics department. She was hired and he soon married her, although her first reaction to him was negative. Wendy recalls saying "Oh, yuk!" to herself when, after the interview, he helped her on with her coat and made a fresh remark. The couple have two sons, Marshall, 9, and Jefferson, 7.
Leaders of both parties professed satisfaction with Gramm's decision—the Democrats to see him go, the Republicans to welcome him aboard. "It's a trade that will benefit both teams," said Rep. Gillis Long (D.-Louisiana), chairman of the House Democratic caucus, who claimed that Gramm, while lobbying to get on the Budget Committee two years ago, had promised to vote with his Democratic colleagues. "He knew he had abused his responsibility and his trust," said Long. Meanwhile Minority Leader Bob Michel (R.-Illinois) promised GOP support to put Gramm back on the Budget Committee.
Gramm says he's just been trying to keep the faith with Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic Party founder who, he argues, would blanch at the current rate of social spending. "You could say that I've been riding my donkey off into the sunset following Jefferson," says Gramm. Come Feb. 12, though, it looks as if he'll be astride an elephant, heading toward what he hopes will be a new dawn.