Ethics Woes for Democrats; God Loses in Nebraska

Mollohan campaign button

hide captionJust what the Democrats didn't need: ethics problems for one of their own.

Dave Heineman campaign button

hide captionFootball may be life in Nebraska, but it may also help to be a popular interim governor.

Coya Knutson campaign button

hide captionForty-eight years ago today, Minnesota's Coya Knutson announces she will ignore her husband's plea to leave Congress and come home to her family. But the controversy will end her career.

Q: Now that Congressman Alan Mollohan (D-WV) was forced out as the senior Democrat on the House ethics committee, and that William Jefferson (D-LA) is under investigation for accepting bribes, doesn't this make a mockery of the Democrats' focus — and your column's obsession — on the bogus "Republican culture of corruption?" — Henry Walker, Mobile, Ala.

A: Republicans certainly hope so. One tactic the Democrats have been applying from the outset is to paint the GOP as a party of corruption. They point to the indictment of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), the conviction of disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the conviction and resignation of California Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham from Congress. I don't know how effective it's been — given the myriad of problems facing the GOP — but House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has not let up on the theme from day one. It has clearly put the Republicans on the defensive.

So the last thing the Democrats needed was a scandal among their own. And that's what seems to be brewing with Jefferson. Already two people have pleaded guilty to offering him bribes. And while the congressman has insisted he's done nothing wrong — and in fact, hasn't been charged with anything — media reports indicate that the investigation into his business dealings is picking up speed. The latest guilty plea in the Jefferson probe came on the heels of news that questions are being raised about the financial dealings of another Democrat, Mollohan, and whether he used his official position to personally enrich himself.

Democrats will insist, with some validity, that the scandals involving Republicans and the ones involving Democrats are not comparable. DeLay was the most powerful member of the House. Cunningham had considerable influence as a member of the Appropriations Committee. And all of Abramoff's direct dealings have been with Republicans, who, after all, run the show in Washington. Whatever transgressions Mollohan and Jefferson are accused of, the Dems argue, it's not part of a widening scandal. But it drives Democratic leaders nuts when they see polling results showing that voters see little difference between the parties about who is more corrupt.

On the other hand, this week's guilty plea by a former top aide to Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) is once again a reminder that the Abramoff scandal shows no signs of going away. Many wags in Washington seem convinced that an indictment of Ney will be the next shoe to fall. And yet to be decided is the fate of two other Republicans associated with Abramoff, Rep. John Doolittle (CA) and Sen. Conrad Burns (MT).

Q: I was pretty much fascinated by the problems of both Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) and now Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), and their run-ins with the Capitol police. Is either Democrat threatened at the polls this year? — George Edmonds, Washington, D.C.

A: The situations involving McKinney and Kennedy are different, as are the reactions back home. McKinney, who is black, allegedly struck a Capitol police officer as he tried to stop her from bypassing a security checkpoint. After first accusing the officer of racial profiling, McKinney — under pressure from her Democratic colleagues — apologized on the House floor. But she may still face assault charges.

Kennedy, the son of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), apparently rammed his car into a police barrier not far from the Capitol last Thursday at 2:45 a.m. Reports say he staggered out of his car, saying he was late for a vote on the House floor; the House had adjourned more than three hours prior. One report said his breath smelled of alcohol and another said patrons at a local bar indicated Kennedy may have been there late Wednesday night, but that no breathalyzer test was given; instead, Capitol police drove him home. Kennedy, who says he remembers nothing of the incident, insists alcohol was not a factor, and that he is addicted to prescription pain medicine and suffers from depression. He said he would check himself into the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., which he had also done back in December. And he said he had no intention of resigning his seat.

Now the reaction back home. Kennedy seems to have no electoral worries, even though he has a history of embarrassing episodes. That includes his apparent shoving of a female security guard at a Los Angeles airport because she told him his carry-on bag was too big; he's also had several automobile mishaps. In 1986 he spent time in drug rehab. But since he first took his congressional seat in 1994, he has never won less than 60 percent of the vote in five re-election contests. No Republican has yet to file against him this year. The filing deadline is June 28.

It's a different story for McKinney, who has a history of confrontations with even members of her own party. But she is also a fiery liberal who does not back down from what she sees as injustice, and that endears her to her supporters. An easy winner in her African-American majority district centered in the Atlanta suburbs in DeKalb County, her only electoral stumble came following the events of 9/11, when she suggested that President Bush might have had advance knowledge of the attacks. That, plus her longstanding opposition to Israel, made her an especially appealing target. And when a fellow black Democrat, state court judge Denise Majette, jumped into the 2002 race, Majette got a lot of out-of-state money, much of it from the Jewish community. Majette won the primary, 58-42 percent.

When Majette decided to leave the House to make an ill-fated run for the Senate in 2004, McKinney won her seat back. Two Democrats have filed to run against her in the July 18 Democratic primary. One is former DeKalb County Commissioner Hank Johnson, who is black and whose candidacy is being treated as a serious one. But McKinney has a loyal base of support, and she has to be considered the favorite for renomination.

Q: Maybe I'm missing something, but I can't make heads or tails of something you wrote in your March 1 column about the few congressional widows who failed to succeed their husbands. You wrote, "After Rep. William F. Ryan died of cancer on Sept. 17, 1972, his widow, Priscilla, sought the Democratic line to succeed him." Does "the line" mean the endorsement of the party (the line to power), or the line of succession (she sought to be the next in the line of Democrats to have held that office)? Please clarify. — Tom Humiston, Kalamazoo, Mich.

A: Apologies for the imprecise language. I meant to say that Priscilla Ryan had hoped Democratic leaders would offer her the nomination for Congress following the death of her husband. The "line" in this case was the Democratic line on the ballot.

Tuesday's Primary Results:

NEBRASKA: The headline might as well have read, "God Loses." Tom Osborne, the long-revered football coach for the University of Nebraska, switched careers and was elected to Congress as a Republican in 2000. Osborne was long the presumed frontrunner for governor this year, given that Gov. Mike Johanns (R) was term-limited.

But when President Bush tapped Johanns in January of 2005 to be secretary of agriculture, Lt. Gov. Dave Heineman moved up. Republican leaders pleaded with Heineman to make way for Osborne and instead run for the Senate this year, but he resisted. And voters apparently agreed with his decision. While nothing compares with Cornhusker football here, Heineman did a good job in his 15 months or so as Johanns' successor; one poll showed him to be the nation's eighth most-popular governor. And he was rewarded for his efforts in the May 9 GOP primary, stunning Osborne, 50 percent to 44 percent. The Democratic nominee is attorney Dave Hahn.

The Republican nod to succeed Osborne in the 3rd Congressional District went to state Sen. Adrian Smith, who had the endorsement of the anti-tax Club for Growth. He is the overwhelming favorite to hold the seat for the GOP in November.

In the Senate race, millionaire businessman Pete Ricketts spent heavily to win the three-way Republican nomination and will face Democratic incumbent Ben Nelson in November.

And in the race for the Republican nomination for state treasurer, Shane Osborn easily upended incumbent Ron Ross. Osborn won national fame in 2001 as the Navy spy pilot who collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea. He and his crew spent 11 days in captivity before being released.

WEST VIRGINIA: Businessman John Raese, who ran a surprisingly close race against Jay Rockefeller (D) for the Senate in 1984, will be the GOP candidate against 88-year-old Sen. Robert Byrd (D). Next month Byrd, who is seeking his ninth term, will eclipse the record of the late Strom Thurmond (R-SC) and become the longest-serving senator of all time.

Next Week's Primaries: Kentucky, Oregon, Pennsylvania

POLITICAL POTPOURRI

— Good news for the GOP in California, which desperately wants to hold on to the House seat vacated by the convicted Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Brian Bilbray (R), the former congressman who advanced to the June 6 special election to fill that seat — and who will be running against Democrat Francine Busby — will not have to contend with Republican rival Eric Roach in the regular primary that day. Roach, a conservative who finished just behind the more moderate Bilbray in the special April 11 election, could have decided to challenge Bilbray in the regular primary (a primary that takes place on the same day as the special runoff). But Roach decided against it.

— Former Sen. Rod Grams (R-MN) announced he will seek his party's nomination to run against seemingly entrenched Rep. James Oberstar (D) in the 8th Congressional District, which is decidedly Democratic territory.

— Cory Booker was easily elected mayor of Newark, N.J., Tuesday on his second try. In a non-partisan election between two African-American candidates, Booker easily defeated former Deputy Mayor Ronald Rice, the choice of outgoing Mayor Sharpe James. James, who is leaving office after 20 years as mayor, defeated Booker in an especially ugly contest four years ago.

— We'll let others decide whether Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden is the right guy to run the Central Intelligence Agency. But in the wake of Porter Goss' removal, do you know how many C.I.A. directors ran for office, either before or after their time at Langley? The answer: Other than Goss, who served in the House from Florida, there were two. There was this fella named George H.W. Bush, who prior to winning the presidency in 1988 was — in addition to leading the CIA during the latter part of the Ford administration — a two-term member of the House from Texas, ambassador to the United Nations, chairman of the Republican National Committee, chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in the People's Republic of China, and vice president under Ronald Reagan. The other? William Casey, Reagan's chief spook, who ran for Congress from New York in 1966 but lost the GOP primary to ex-Rep. Steven Derounian.

Meanwhile, check out my hard-hitting interview with Porter Goss back in June of 2001, when I ask him tough questions about his favorite flavor of ice cream.

REMINDER: "Political Junkie" is featured every Wednesday on NPR's Talk of the Nation, a live call-in program, at 2:40 p.m. Eastern. This week: primary results, shakeup at the CIA, the Abramoff scandal reaches closer to Bob Ney, and what in the world can the GOP do about Katherine Harris in Florida?

Also … Check out NPR's new interactive election map, highlighting every Senate, gubernatorial and key House race in the country, with early projections.

This Day in Campaign History: Rep. Coya Knutson (D-MN) announces she will run for a third term, despite the pleadings of her husband two days earlier that she abandon her political career because of their deteriorating home life. The "Coya, Come Home" furor contributes to her defeat in November, making her the only Democratic House incumbent to lose to a Republican that year (May 10, 1958).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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