Growing up in Lakeland, Charles Canady was a polite little boy who read encyclopedias for fun.
Now he is a member of Congress. And while he shepherds some of the Republicans' most controversial ideas through his House subcommittee, he remains thoughtful and well-mannered in a way that disarms those inclined to shout at him.
Consider his plans: He wants to do away with most of the government's affirmative action programs, encourage prayer in schools and make it a crime to burn the flag or perform certain late-term abortions.
Imagine the liberals' reaction.
"He's certainly been at the forefront on the most intrusive parts of the agenda," harrumphs Democrat Barney Frank, the Massachusetts representative who sits at Canady's elbow on the House Constitution Subcommittee.
The two disagree about nearly everything. But Frank describes Canady as a fair and decent guy who is simply forced to do terrible things by House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Told of Frank's assessment, the quiet Canady threw back his head and let out a laugh that reverberated in the empty school auditorium in Tampa where he had just concluded a public hearing on religious liberties.
Congress doesn't work that way, Canady said.
"The speaker can't manage every committee and every issue. It's not possible, and I don't think the speaker has any desire to do that," he said. "I think the speaker wants to make certain that we're generally moving in the same direction, but Congress is a very diverse institution."
Canady, 41, whose district includes his hometown of Lakeland as well as Brandon, Plant City and eastern Pasco County, said his proposals are his own. If they reflect the Republicans' Contract with America, which he signed, or the Christian Coalition's Contract with the American Family, it's because he believes in them, he said.
Even though he has been a Republican for just six years.
Once a Democrat
Canady says he grew up in a family of conservative Democrats when it was possible to be both, especially in the South.
His father, also Charles Canady, was chief of staff to Gov. Lawton Chiles while Chiles served in the U.S. Senate. In a break with tradition, the senior Canady was based in Florida, not Washington, and kept his family in Lakeland.
Charles was a teenager when Chiles first ran for the Senate in 1970. His enduring memory is getting covered with green ink while making silk-screen signs for Chiles.
Later at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, Canady would travel every winter to Washington where his father could get him admitted to watch the State of the Union address, no matter who was president. Canady went on to Yale Law School.
"At first when he went to the Ivy League, I thought that Charles would end up working in Washington or New York," his father recalls.
But Canady says he was always longing to come home. He set up a law practice in Lakeland and ran for the Legislature at age 29.
Canady lost his first race but eventually served three terms in the Florida House, increasingly uncomfortable as a Democrat. He had always been anti-abortion, for instance, but the last straw was having to defend Michael Dukakis as the Democrats' presidential nominee in 1988.
"It had become increasingly clear to me that Democrats have closed their ears to conservatives," Canady says.
He switched parties in 1989, which was easier politically than personally, he said. "I knew that when I switched parties, I would disappoint some of my friends."
His father didn't try to dissuade him and became a Republican himself two years later.
Jon Mills, who was the Democratic House speaker when Canady was in the state Legislature, says he knew that Canady was unhappy in the party.
Now, Mills said, "I believe he is philosophically representing his constituency and his beliefs. I think that is a matter of principle, and I don't fault him for it."
Changing the Constitution
Gov. Chiles remembers Canady as a serious and deeply religious young man. He says he was only a little surprised that Canady was elected to Congress in 1992.
Canady is not a dynamic speaker, Chiles said, but, "He can always outwork anybody. If he's Charlie's son, he had to be that way."
Canady was almost invisible as a freshman, but he asked to be assigned to the Constitution subcommittee because he was interested in the issues it handles. Every proposed constitutional amendment, as well as matters of civil rights and individual liberties, comes first to the subcommittee.
Now in his third year, with the Republicans in power, Canady has been named chairman, a job he sought even knowing it would consume all his time.
"He really has been thrust into the limelight over some of the most complicated, controversial issues that are going to face this Congress," said Leslie Harris, public policy director of People for the American Way, a liberal watchdog group.
The subcommittee is a branch of the House Judiciary Committee, and Canady was appointed by Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde.
"I felt he was the most competent with a conservative agenda," the Illinois Republican told The Hill, a Capitol newspaper. "He is a man of great principle and integrity. He knows the law."
The flag-burning amendment passed by the House last week first sailed through Canady's subcommittee. So did Canady's proposal to ban so-called partial-birth abortions, a rare procedure performed late in a pregnancy, usually when the baby has hopeless birth defects.
He's taking far more heat over two other issues.
Canady plans to introduce a bill that would do away with preferences based on gender or race in the federal government's hiring and contracting.
He takes pains to explain that voluntary affirmative action programs in the private sector would not be affected. And he wants to keep outreach and recruitment efforts for women and minorities.
The existing system, he said, divides Americans into race and gender groups rather than treating them as individuals.
"I believe that this is a system which reinforces prejudice," he said. "We need to transcend the system and move on toward a truly color-blind system."
Canady is conducting hearings this summer on a religious liberties amendment, as yet unwritten, that would ensure prayer in the schools, permit Christmas or other religious decorations at public buildings and allow government payments to church schools.
"He's proving himself a loyal foot soldier in the move to impose a religious-right agenda on the Congress," said Harris.
People for the American Way strongly opposes the amendment. Harris said her group is busy making sure opponents show up at Canady's hearings, as they did in Tampa on June 23. But she gives him credit for allowing both sides to testify, which doesn't always happen at congressional hearings.
Back in Florida, Chiles said he enjoys picking up the paper and seeing Canady in the spotlight. Canady's parents in Lakeland are proud, too.
"He was always such a pleasure as a child, and he's doing something in this life," his father said. "He believes in what he's doing and believes he can have an impact."
His parents worry that the congressman, who is single, is being drained by his work, but it won't be for long. A believer in term limits, Canady has promised to leave the House by 2000.