When Rep. John Yarmuth talks about the Republican Party, he has little good to say — the way a former drunk talks about booze, or a jilted lover talks about his ex.
The scion of a wealthy family, the liberal Kentucky Democrat was once a card-carrying member of the GOP.
“[I] always considered myself a Rockefeller Republican,” Yarmuth told Roll Call of his younger days.
That particular breed of political dinosaur no longer roams the earth, and Yarmuth considers himself among those who like to say that he didn’t leave the Republican Party, it left him (an assertion at least as many Republicans make about the Democratic Party these days).
In Congress, Yarmuth is a rarity: Of the 81 former legislative aides currently serving who once worked for a Member, he is one of only three who did duty for a lawmaker of the other party. (The others are also Democrats, Rep. Dan Boren (Okla.), who worked for party-switching Rep. Wes Watkins, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who worked for liberal Republican Sen. Charles Mathias Jr.)
While an undergraduate at Yale University, Yarmuth spent his summers working for Jefferson County Judge-Executive Marlow Cook.
Cook, a moderate Republican, was elected to the Senate in 1968. Three years later, Yarmuth joined his office as a legislative aide.
Yarmuth’s initial loyalty to the Republican Party was part ideological, part genetic.
Growing up in a Republican household, Yarmuth’s father had been a fundraiser for President Richard Nixon. But aside from his family’s political leanings, Yarmuth had an affinity for the more moderate wing of the Republican Party, embodied by the flamboyant governor of New York who lent his name to the cause: Nelson Rockefeller.
His mentor’s philosophy proved a suitable match for the legislative aide. Cook, among the early crop of Republicans to win national office from a Southern state, did not have the reputation of being an unbending partisan.
During his one term in the Senate, Cook frequently challenged the party leadership, including the president. In 1970, he was one of 13 Republicans to oppose Nixon’s Supreme Court nominee, G. Harrold Carswell, who faced questions about his earlier support of segregation. (Cook backed him in committee, then voted “no” on the floor.)
In 1973, Cook joined 24 other Senate Republicans in overriding Nixon’s veto of legislation requiring Congressional approval before sending U.S. forces abroad.
After Cook lost his re-election bid in 1974, Yarmuth returned to his native state, running for a seat on Louisville’s Board of Aldermen in 1975 and for Jefferson County District Commissioner in 1981. He lost both races and would never again run for public office as a Republican.
As the 1970s unfolded, the GOP moved right and Yarmuth moved left, wary of the growing influence of social conservatives in the Republican Party. The final straw came in 1985, he said, when the late Rev. Jerry Falwell dubbed South African Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu a “phony.”
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