Lawmakers open wallets for Taylor

The fiercely independent Rep. Gene Taylor (Miss.), who gained a reputation during nine terms in Congress as a conservative Democrat not afraid to anger party leaders, has not been lacking for friends since Hurricane Katrina washed away his home, his pickup truck, his childhood home and one of his district offices three weeks ago.

As Taylor gathered relief supplies in Mississippi — he was “caked in mud and sweat and almost unrecognizable,” reported the Jackson Clarion-Ledger — his colleagues in the House of Representatives were quietly collecting personal contributions to help the lawmaker get back on his feet financially.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a longtime friend of Taylor’s, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led the effort to help.

“It was a spontaneous outpouring of concern among members over Gene having lost everything,” said Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who participated in the effort. “He would never, ever, ever ask for something like this. It just doesn’t occur to him. It runs contrary to every instinctive fiber in his being.”

No one contacted for this story would say how much lawmakers collected for Taylor, although dozens of Democratic members were asked to help.

But House rules severely restrict the value of gifts that lawmakers may accept. They can take up to $50 twice a year from anyone. From friends, a lawmaker may accept gifts valued at no more than $250 unless they receive a waiver from the ethics committee.

A congressional-ethics expert, Larry Noble at the Center for Public Integrity, said the contributions were likely permissible as long as they were limited to members of Congress who enjoyed a personal relationship with Taylor.

“It depends on who is giving the money and what their motivation is. If it is lobbyists or corporate executives or constituents, then that would be a problem. It’s an area you have to be very careful about,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Taylor said she was not aware of the donations from members, although Rep. Marion Barry (D-Ark.) had presented Taylor with a new sport coat from the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, of which Taylor is a member.

Taylor rode out the storm at his brother’s house in Kiln, Miss., 13 miles inland from Bay St. Louis, where he lived with his wife and teenage son, Gary. When he and Gary returned the following day, the shorefront house on Beach Boulevard had been washed away.

Although covered by insurance, the house constituted most of the family’s net wealth, according to financial disclosure reports. Before being elected to Congress in 1989, Taylor worked as a salesman for a paper company for a dozen years and served in the state Legislature. He turned 52 on Saturday.

Another Democratic member who spoke on condition of anonymity said Taylor’s unwillingness to focus on his own daunting situation prompted the unexpected largesse from his colleagues.

“In the wake of his own personal loss, he didn’t waste a moment” to help others, the member said. “Not one word of lament, not a breath of self-pity. All he said was we’re tough people and we can make it. … His wife was with him, and they had no clothes. They had nothing.”

Murtha and others gave the donations to Taylor’s daughter Emily because both Taylor and his wife, Margaret, were still in the district and unreachable. When Mrs. Taylor returned to Washington two weeks ago, Murtha, Pelosi and others took her out to lunch.

Taylor returned briefly to Washington for the first time last week. Asked about his colleagues’ generosity, he resorted to self-deprecating humor. “Well, I’ve never been a snappy dresser,” he joked, “so they chipped in to buy me some clothes to replace a lot of blue shirts and khakis that I lost in the water.”

Taylor is one of the most casual dressers in Congress, often pairing khakis and a denim shirt with a leather bomber jacket during the winter months.

Aside from his sartorial flourishes, Taylor has distinguished himself as an independent thinker in the caucus. In recent elections for House Speaker, he did not back the Democrats’ own leader — either Pelosi or her predecessor Dick Gephardt (Mo.) — but instead voted for Murtha, who was not even a candidate. He was one of only five Democrats to support two counts of impeachment against President Clinton.