The Spectacle Blog

Death of an Important Historic Footnote

By on 7.6.12 | 9:44AM

Rick Tonry has died.

Who?

Rick Tonry was a Democratic Louisiana state representative who was elected to Congress in 1976. His general-election opponent was a little-known prosecutor who had been drafted into the race at the last minute when the intended Republican candidate pulled out because of... I think it was business setbacks, or something like that. Anyway, in a seat thought to be safe for Democrats, Tonry won a surprisingly tight race. Soon, however, he was under fire for an alleged vote-buying scheme dating from his also-close Democratic primary. The evidence was substantial; Tonry resigned from Congress after only four months (and eventually was convicted of several charges).

The defeated Republican prosecutor quickly announced for the special election to replace Tonry. Still an underdog, the Republican won, in August of 1977. It was the very first sign of an incipient Republican, conservative comeback nationwide. It presaged important GOP House pickups in an important freshman class of 1978, with a net pickup of 15 Republican seats, and with the 77 new members overall (GOP and Democrat) being considered decidedly more conservative than their predecessors. Among the newly elected House members who were, or who would become, Republicans, were Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Richard Shelby, Bill Thomas (later House Ways and Means Chairman), Dan Lungren (still in the House after an interim stint as California AG), Jerry Lewis (later House Appropriations Chairman, Olymia Snowe, Gerald Solomon (later the very influential chairman of the Rules Committee), Bill Clinger (Chairman of Committee on Reform and Oversight, which ran the Travelgate and Filegate investigations of the Clinton administration), Carroll Campbell (later goernor of South Carolina and key power broker in presidential politics), Phil Gramm, Ron Paul, and Jim Sensenbrenner (later chairman of the Judiciary Committee). (As an interesting sidelight, the newly elected Democrats included Geraldine Ferraro and Tom Daschle.)

The Louisiana Republican whose election started this wave was my former boss, Bob Livingston, who as House Appropriations Chairman oversaw the cutting of a then-whopping $50 billion (in actual dollars, not projections) in two years from domestic discretionary spending. Largely for better although obviously in one key instance for worse, Livingston played an outsized role in many of the key developments of the 1990s.

All of which was at least assisted in being catalyzed by the crookedness of Rick Tonry, without which it is surely not certain that Livingston would have gotten another chance. Livingston's win in 1977 served sort of like the elections of Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell in 2009, or of George Allen in 1993, energizing conservatives for a watershed election by proving that victory was possible.

As for Tonry, he was later convicted of another bribery scheme, which then was thrown out on a technicality.

Tonry is dead at age 77. 

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