Kilroy touts bank bill in reelection bid

Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy may be one of the first Democrats to know if the party’s effort to crack down on Wall Street pays political dividends.

Kilroy, a freshman congresswoman from Columbus, Ohio, is making financial legislation a mainstay of her 2010 reelection bid in one of the country’s most competitive races.

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The race is rematch of the 2008 nail-biter between Kilroy, the former Franklin County commissioner, and Steve Stivers, a seven-year bank lobbyist and six-year state senator. Stivers lost by just 2,300 votes last time.

“They have a choice here between somebody who is going to have the outlook of the banking community and someone who is going to stand up for homeowners, small business, merchants,” Kilroy said in an interview in her Washington office on the eve of the House passing the bill. Stivers, she said, “is part of a culture” that pushed deregulation before the financial crisis and hurt Main Street to the benefit of Wall Street.

“I don’t think we need another bank lobbyist in Washington,” she said.

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John Damschroder, spokesman for Stivers, argues the financial bill doesn’t end bailouts and helps big banks. Kilroy’s biggest vulnerability, he said, is the dismal unemployment rate and meager growth in private-sector jobs.

“Where are the jobs?” Damschroder said.

At a time when near-double-digit unemployment rates, historic deficits and the healthcare law top voters’ concerns, the race is testing whether the financial regulatory legislation proves a winner at the ballot box.

Ohio is a longtime political battleground, and voters there are showing increasing signs of disapproval with Democrats. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, more than half of Ohio voters disapproved of both the Democratic governor’s and President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy. The state’s long-eroding industrial base faces a 10.7 percent unemployment rate, which outranks the 9.5 percent national rate. Ohio’s housing market remains in a long slump.

“When voters think about the economy, they think about unemployment and unemployment and unemployment. Everything else pales as an issue,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “GDP, Wall Street regulation — those are abstract concepts when they walk into the voting booth.”

Jason Johnson, a professor at Hiram College in Ohio, said Kilroy has one of the two toughest House races in the state. “No one is looking at Stivers. Everyone is paying attention to whether or not this is a referendum of Mary Jo Kilroy and Democrats in Congress.”

On the campaign trail, Kilroy touts her work on last year’s $787 billion fiscal stimulus bill and the healthcare bill. And she is increasingly promoting her work on financial legislation.

Columbus has major financial interests at stake. JPMorgan Chase & Co. is the region’s largest private employer, with nearly 16,000 jobs, and more than 53,000 people in the region work in the financial and insurance industries, according to the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

Kilroy has devoted part of her website to the Wall Street legislation and stood with Democratic leaders after the House passed the bill.

Kilroy was a late addition to the 43-member House-Senate conference committee that put the final touches on the legislation.

Kilroy said she did not lobby for the perch. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) approached her and asked if she’d be interested, Kilroy said.

“Nobody talked to me about election concerns,” she said.

Once on the committee, Kilroy pushed amendments to rein in credit rating agencies and give institutional investors a grater say on compensation. She also attempted to help local interests. Kilroy bucked Frank and the White House by supporting an exemption for auto dealers from a new consumer protection regulator.

“I thought that was a reasonable thing. Auto dealers are having a real tough time of it,” she said.

The Stivers campaign sees Kilroy’s spot on the conference committee and her work on the bill as an attempt by Democratic leaders to shore up her reelection chances. Damschroder criticized Kilroy for holding campaign fundraisers while on the conference committee.

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“I think the way they are trying to use it is to try to show relevance to get Mary Jo Kilroy’s fingerprints on something as well as to use it as a perch to raise dirty money,” Damschroder said.

Kilroy has raised $103,000 from the financial, insurance and real estate industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Stivers has received $166,000 from the same interests.

Stivers is a former lobbyist for Bank One, which is now part of JPMorgan. His campaign received a combined roughly $45,000 from contributors at Nationwide insurance, Huntington Bancshares and JPMorgan.

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