By Caroline Keough - The Union Tribune - August 7, 1996
Cynthia Davis had only one thing in common with the man who knelt next to her, building the walls of what will soon be her home.
Neither she nor House Speaker Newt Gingrich could stop their drills from slipping as they put screws into the building's frame.
Gingrich, who was in San Diego for the Republican National Convention, donned jeans and a T-shirt yesterday to help build Davis' home and promote Habitat for Humanity, a volunteer organization that builds homes for low-income families.
"Habitat is a powerful organization, because it recognizes that you've got to grow the family as well as build the house," Gingrich said.
The non-denominational Christian program, which was founded in Georgia and claims former President Jimmy Carter as one of its most recognizable builders, buys land and materials to build homes and recruits volunteers to help with construction. Habitat requires that recipients - who generally earn less than 50 percent of the median income - help with construction and pay back a no-interest mortgage over 20 years.
Davis and Gingrich worked a few feet apart in what will soon be Davis' bedroom, wielding power drills as they mopped sweat and chalky dust from their faces; but there is a world between them.
Davis, a single, working mother of four, struggles to make ends meet on her secretarial salary. She sees the Habitat for Humanity project as a "blessing sent straight from God" that will mean a safe, stable place to raise her kids.
Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who formulated the Contract With America, is a main proponent of welfare reforms which critics say will hurt poverty level families not as fortunate as Davis'. He sees Habitat as part of a grand vision for America, moving the country away from government assistance and toward privately funded volunteerism.
But after two hours of drilling screws into sheetrock, Davis found that the chasm did not seem that important at the moment. She had barely heard of Gingrich before he was slated to appear at her future home, which is tucked between Interstate 805 and Highway 94 on a sun-baked plot of land.
"You don't have much time to keep up with that stuff when you've got four mouths to feed" said Davis, 29.
But Gingrich's Georgia charm and personal interest in her home won Davis over.
"I'd heard a lot of negative things about him and what he stands for, but I like to judge for myself," Davis said, resting as Gingrich drilled on, his belly pushing over the apron that held extra screws. "He's actually pretty nice. He kind of reminds me of a big Barney Rubble (the Flintstones cartoon character)."
Outside, Luis Reyes dug a ditch for the drainage pipe that will run between his newly completed Habitat for Humanity house and Davis'.
Reyes emigrated from Puerto Rico when he was 7 and his wife, Rosa, was born and raised in Tijuana. They have both helped to build Davis' home as part of the 500 hours of "sweat equity" that Habitat for Humanity requires.
Rosa Reyes' English is limited to the basics and she didn't know much about the white-haired man working in the house next door except that he was "a very important man."
She watched as he gave a press conference in the back yard for students from a Montgomery High School media project, but she couldn't understand most of the speech.
Gingrich promoted the idea of a triple fence at the border to keep out illegal immigrants and touted legislation to make English the official language of the country. When he was done, Rosa Reyes scrambled into the crowd posing for pictures with Gingrich.
"Did you get the picture? Did you get it?" she called in
Spanish to her husband, who held a camera.