There may be more than meets the eye in the recent personnel shuffle at the National Rifle Association.
Tanya Metaska, the hard-line chief lobbyist for the nation's most powerful gun group, got her comeuppance earlier this month when she was "bounced upstairs" to a job as senior adviser to the association's executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre. Her predecessor as chief lobbyist, James Ray Baker, is taking over her old duties.
The official press release said Metaska was changing jobs in part so she could spend more time with her grandchildren. But sources told us that Metaska didn't go voluntarily; had she not accepted the reassignment, she would've likely been fired. Baker, described by several people as Metaska's arch-rival within the lobbying shop, is viewed as having friendlier relations with key conservatives on Capitol Hill.
News stories noted that the shuffle was part of the NRA's much-heralded efforts to change its image. The organization has lost more than half-a-million members in recent years, much of it due to its hard-line stance on issues like the assault-weapons ban. As part of its makeover, the NRA named actor Charlton Heston as its new president and is trying its best to project a more moderate image.
But that's only part of the story.
Sources tell us that Metaska's fate was sealed after she personally approved a mailing to several hundred thousand NRA members in California attacking Dan Lundgren, the state attorney general who is the Republican gubernatorial candidate in the November elections. In the mailing, Lundgren received an "F" on gun issues.
The poor rating is not what surprised Republicans. Though Lundgren supports the right to bear arms, he's long failed to toe the NRA line on issues like concealed handguns and assault-weapons. What surprised the GOP was the timing, just weeks before an election.
That didn't sit too well with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., who badly needs a Republican governor in California to protect his fragile House majority in the next century. As the largest state in the union, California has 54 congressional districts, and it expects to gain several more after the 2000 census. The next governor will oversee the redrawing of California's congressional map, and with a Democratic-controlled legislature will have the power to make life very difficult for Republicans.
Recent polls have shown Lundgren running neck-and-neck or slightly behind the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. Neither man has generated much excitement among voters, so it's crucial that both sides get their core voters to the polls.
Lundgren's tough sledding is even more disappointing to Republicans considering that their nominee for the Senate, Matt Fong, is poised to oust well-known Democratic incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer.
A knowledgeable source tells us that when Gingrich heard about the anti-Lundgren mailing, he angrily called LaPierre demanding an explanation. The mailing was seen as an act of treason by Republicans, whose support for the gun lobby has translated into millions of dollars in campaign contributions over the years. It was the last straw for Republicans, some of whom have long been frustrated with Metaska's uncompromising manner. Metaska won few friends, even among her ideological allies, with her bullying style.
NRA spokesman Bill Powers would not speculate on any conversations between LaPierre and members of Congress. But he said it's "absolutely not true" that Metaska's ouster as chief lobbyist was orchestrated by the GOP leadership. "Sometimes people do just move on," he said, referring us to the press release announcing her departure. LaPierre was travelling, Powers said, and could not be reached for comment.
Gingrich spokeswoman Christina Martin denied knowledge of the conversation, and said the Speaker was also unavailable for comment.
Nevertheless, it's just the latest example of House Republicans trying to bully a special interest group. As the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, recently tried to torpedo the appointment of former Democratic Rep. Dave McCurdy to head the Electronic Industries Alliance, a major trade group. DeLay and other Republicans wanted retiring Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y., to get the job instead.
-- Jack Anderson and Jan Moller are columnists for United Feature Syndicate.