San Diego Union Tribune

December 23, 2005

Friends learned tough lessons in '92

By Jerry Kammer

When San Diego City Councilman Bill Lowery was elected to Congress in 1980, he became friends with a fellow Republican, Jerry Lewis of Redlands, who had been elected two years earlier. They grew even closer after Lowery joined Lewis on the appropriations committee in 1985.

In 1992 both men faced defining moments in their careers.

Lowery was identified as one of the worst offenders in a group of lawmakers who flagrantly wrote bad checks and expected the House bank to cover them. The "Rubbergate" scandal came just two years after he nearly lost re-election because of his cozy relationship with the fast-living financier Don Dixon, who plundered a Texas savings and loan and stuck taxpayers with a $1.3 billion tab.

Before Dixon was indicted, Lowery rode on Dixon's corporate jet and hosted parties on Dixon's yacht. Dixon held a Christmas fundraiser for Lowery at Dixon's Del Mar beach home, with miniature Christmas trees floating in the pool.

When "Rubbergate" erupted, Lowery was running against freshman Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham in the Republican primary for the newly created 51st District. Cunningham set out to make the race a referendum on character, touting himself as "A Congressman We Can Be Proud Of."

Facing a drumbeat of negative publicity, Lowery dropped out of the race less than two months before the primary. In January 1993, the day after his term ended, he joined a small Washington lobbying firm started by two Democrats with strong California ties, James Copeland Jr. and Frederick Hatfield. He brought a Republican touch, along with his understanding of the nuances of lawmaking.

Lewis, meanwhile, was receiving a lesson in the new, more confrontational style of politics demanded by Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and other Republicans determined to take control of the House after four decades of Democratic dominance.

In a stunning 88-84 vote, Dick Armey of Texas, who promised to be more partisan and aggressive than the courtly Lewis, ousted Lewis from the chairmanship of the Republican conference, the party's No.3 position in the House.

The humiliating defeat taught Lewis an important lesson for success in the Republican caucus, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center on Politics.

"He learned that you have to play ball," Sabato said. "You have to serve the caucus and the leadership. And one of the primary ways to do that is to raise money for the caucus and help members who are politically in danger at the next election."

The lesson was particularly important in Lewis' role on the appropriations committee, Sabato said.

"He knew that if you add a project into a spending bill, you're going to make some people very grateful people. It's the way things work on the Hill. The Democrats did the same thing when they were in power."

Lewis has since risen to the powerful position of chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, boosted by a fundraising network that has Lowery at its center. Meanwhile, Lowery's flourishing lobbying career has made him a wealthy man.

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