Ney in the Eyes of His Constituents

Ohio Republican Bob Ney is acknowledged to be a key member of Congress who received gifts and favors from GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and who may have done favors in return. Constituents in Ney's district share their thoughts on their representative and the recent revelations.

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On his Web site, Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney claims to be the 11th most powerful member of Congress, thanks to his chairmanship of the House Administration Committee. Ney also ranks number 15 among members of Congress who took money from Jack Abramoff and his clients. But in Abramoff's plea agreement earlier this week, Ney had the dubious distinction of being named as Representative No. 1. He's the only elected official Abramoff implicated in his guilty pleas. NPR's David Welna went to Ney's district in southeastern Ohio yesterday to hear how this is all going down with his constituents.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Newark, Ohio, is the seat of Licking County. With 50,000 inhabitants it's the biggest town in Representative Bob Ney's 18th Congressional District. You don't see flashy cars and swank restaurants in this rust-belt holdout. It's more a place where people say they're proud to be working-class and honest.

(Soundbite of restaurant activity)

WELNA: At the tin-ceiling Sparta Grill on Newark's Main Street, retired union worker Timothy Williams has just ordered a plate of eggs and bacon for a late breakfast. Ask this Democrat about Bob Ney and he says he's not at all surprised to see him linked with Jack Abramoff's largesse.

Mr. TIMOTHY WILLIAMS: Not just because he's Republican, but anything these politicians do anymore doesn't surprise me a whole heck of a lot. I mean, seems like they're all in it for the bucks anymore, so...

WELNA: Williams says Ney should resign, although he suspects that in this district where Ney won two-thirds of the votes last election he'd likely be replaced by another Republican. A couple of booths away, antiques dealer Tom Heisey(ph) sips a mug of coffee. Heisey says he's a Republican, and he says he's not ready, yet, to write off Bob Ney.

Mr. TOM HEISEY: He's been always a really great guy to do things for Ohio. In this district--I don't know. If he's on the take he won't last long. I think the people will be very, very upset about it, but if he's not involved--if he is innocent, he'll be OK. But no voter's going to condone people who take advantage of their position and take advantage of their office. It's just not the way people think here.

WELNA: Have you voted for Ney in the past?

Mr. HEISEY: Yes.

WELNA: And...

Mr. HEISEY: And I would be voting against him if he were involved in a political scandal.

WELNA: Two doors down at the Midland Barber Shop, Tim Gardner(ph), a 57-year-old retired federal worker, sits in the barber's chair.

Mr. TIM GARDNER: Yeah, a little more off the top.

Unidentified Barber: How's around the ears?

Mr. GARDNER: Oh, that's good. Yeah.

WELNA: Gardner's a Republican who's voted for Ney all six times he's run for Congress. He says he's been following the news closely about Ney's ties to the Abramoff scandal.

Mr. GARDNER: Probably I am kind of surprised about it, 'cause he's always been good in what he's done from everything I've seen. I know as far as his records, as far as voting and stuff, they've run along the lines that I've believed. So yeah, I guess I am a little surprised.

WELNA: Would you vote for him again?

Mr. GARDNER: I'm going to reserve that until I see what comes out. So I don't know.

WELNA: Other Republicans are also wary about their congressman. Outside the Newark post office, Judy, a 64-year-old who won't give her last name, says she's been watching Fox TV news every day for the latest on Bob Ney.

JUDY: I just think that on both sides there is just so much corruption that something has to be done. I don't know what, but--think people are really fed up with both sides.

WELNA: Down the sidewalk, factory worker Mark Richards laughs when asked about Ney's predicament.

Mr. MARK RICHARDS: I never voted for the bastard. (Laughs) Guarantee you that.

WELNA: And why not?

Mr. RICHARDS: 'Cause I don't like him.

WELNA: Richards is a Democrat. Roy Simms(ph), a fellow worker at the local Owens-Corning plant, is a Republican deeply suspicious of Washington.

Mr. ROY SIMMS: Where you're from, life is fast, very fast...

Mr. RICHARDS: Feed off of people.

Mr. SIMMS: Yeah. And you feed off people. Here, it's manufacturing, hard work--you know, labor-intense. You know, what's right there may not be right here, and that's why we have the opportunity to vote.

WELNA: Simms says he's voted for President Bush but not Bob Ney. Still, there are even Democrats in Newark willing to give Ney the benefit of the doubt, including the town's mayor, Bruce Bain.

Mayor BRUCE BAIN (Democrat; Newark, Ohio): You know, it's very unfortunate and I hope--I believe that people are innocent until proven guilty no matter who they are or what they're accused of. That's--our justice system is set up on that and I'm hopeful that the congressman did nothing wrong.

WELNA: Has he been a good congressman for this district?

Mayor BAIN: He's been a popular congressman. He's been a very large vote-getter. He's worked closely with the Newark, Ohio, city government, whether that be in Democrat or Republican administration--worked closely to get federal funding here.

WELNA: Bain says Ney delivered a million dollars to Newark last year in the highway bill. Some of the town's Republicans have given generously to Ney's re-election campaigns. John Kosak(ph), who's chief financial officer for a Newark-based chain of banks, gave $500 to Ney's campaign just eight months ago.

Mr. JOHN KOSAK (Banking CFO): You know, Bob Ney's innocent until proven guilty. I mean, these are charges that are being brought, and you know, Bob will have his chance to explain everything fully and I believe in our system, and you know, whatever the results are from the system, boy, I accept those. Yeah, I wouldn't have any problem with that. But you know, to speculate that he's guilty now--I'm not going to do that.

WELNA: In nearby Columbus, Ohio State political scientist Paul Allen Beck says other Republicans are speculating about Ney's future.

Mr. PAUL ALLEN BECK (Ohio State University): Ney is in considerable trouble, so much so that his own party here in Ohio is talking about, well, if he really did those things and was engaged in this, he should step down so that we can find a new nominee. That's what they're really thinking about.

WELNA: Ney issued a statement earlier this week saying he had, quote, "no way of knowing the self-serving and fraudulent nature of Abramoff's activities."

The prospect of Ney stepping down intrigues Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern to say the least.

Mr. CHRIS REDFERN (Ohio Democratic Party): As the Democratic leader, I hope that's later. I hope he doesn't step down until August or September, and obviously that's a bit cynical on my part, but I think most people realize the longer he's around the more likely it is the Democrats pick up the seat.

WELNA: But Ohio State's Herb Asher thinks Ney's troubles don't necessarily improve prospects for Democrats.

Mr. HERB ASHER (Ohio State University): I don't think the Democrats can automatically assume that come November, you know, the slogan `Throw the bums out' will get them over the top.

WELNA: Because back in Newark, people like factory worker Roy Simms are still withholding judgment.

Mr. SIMMS: I don't know if the guy's guilty or not. I mean, the bottom line is we haven't gone to court, OK? There's some things said in the paper. You know, yes, somebody did a nip of whatever. But we haven't reached that point. He's guilty from hearsay at this point.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): Now an update on another story we're following on the program today. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is now in critical but stable condition at a hospital in Jerusalem, and doctors say that he has shown some improvement. He had five hours of emergency surgery today to stop more bleeding in his brain and to relieve the pressure in his skull, but it is still uncertain if he will recover.

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