By Roxana Tiron - 01/25/05 12:00 AM EST
Democrats believe that, amid the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, they might have a chance to give Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) a run for his money in California’s 4th District this November.
They are beginning to take a serious look at Charlie Brown, whom they compare to Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran staunchly opposed to that conflict who almost won a special congressional race in one of Ohio’s most conservative districts.
Brown, a graduate of the Air Force Academy who has served in every conflict from Vietnam to the first Gulf War, is campaigning in one of the most conservative districts in Northern California.
Doolittle, an eighth-termer, won reelection there with 65 percent of the votes in 2004.
The district, which spans the Sierra Nevada mountain range from Lake Tahoe to the border with Oregon, is 48.5 percent Republican, 32 percent Democrat. But those are just registered voters. Some 90 percent of the district’s residents are unregistered, a fact some Democratic operatives hope to exploit.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has yet to throw its weight officially behind Brown, who must run the gantlet of the Democratic primary this spring, in which he will face Lisa Rae, a public-policy advocate.
Democratic sources say they expect Brown to win. “We are really excited about him,” said a Democrat familiar with the process who asked not to be named. “He has a lot of potential, he is a veteran, same energy as Paul Hackett.”
The DCCC does not take sides officially in primaries, but the source said that Brown is “a great candidate” and that Doolittle is “being hit again and again” because of links to Abramoff.
Doolittle’s name has surfaced as one of several lawmakers who could be implicated in the scandal.
Abramoff pleaded guilty Jan. 3 to federal conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion and, as part of his deal with the prosecution, will testify in probes that could implicate members of Congress.
A federal grand jury subpoenaed the business records of Doolittle’s wife, Julie, two years ago. As president of a political fundraising company, Julie Doolittle performed work for Abramoff between 2002 and March 2004.
Rep. Doolittle received $4,000 in campaign donations from Abramoff and at least $100,000 more from Abramoff’s clients, according to reports.
Unlike many of his peers, Doolittle refuses to return the money connected to Abramoff. He also reported using Abramoff’s luxury box at Washington’s MCI Center.
Doolittle ascended to the ranks of the House GOP leadership partly because of his close relationship to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the former majority leader and a close friend of Abramoff. DeLay has been indicted in a separate campaign-finance case in Texas.
Doolittle says he has done nothing wrong and recently sent a letter to the Justice Department asking to be investigated.
In an interview on KFKB radio in Sacramento, Doolittle said he had not been contacted by the Justice Department in the two years since the Abramoff lobbying controversy started.
“I am so concerned about this I just sent a letter to the U.S. attorney general today in what is a highly unorthodox move that would not be something lawyers would prefer to see happen, and I said, ‘Hey, if you’re concerned about me, investigate me,’ because I’d like to get my name cleared,” Doolittle said in the interview, which was taped Thursday.
Doolittle said that an estimated $1 million has been spent on negative publicity against him both locally and across the country.
“Given the national public opinion and the attitudes about the GOP Congress, and then with the corruption issue breaking, there are seats in this cycle that last cycle no one would have imagined would be in play,” said Ben Tulchin, associate vice president at the Democratic research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. “It may be challenging on paper, but they have to take a shot. … You have to give the people a reason to fire the incumbent.”
Brown, who works at the Roseville Police Department, said that he knows it is difficult to run in a heavily GOP district but that “the Republican Party has left the people. … [It has] tried to use fear and distract from the real issues in the country.”
He also said he knows he will have to win over independent voters.
“We are not convinced that Brown is going to be the candidate,” said Richard Robinson, Doolittle’s chief of staff. In a district “where even the Democrats are conservative, he seems to be campaigning as the more liberal [candidate],” Robinson noted.
Robinson predicted that Rae would have a higher chance of winning the primary.
Rae said, “My focus is on Congressman Doolittle. People are looking for leaders that are ethical and care about the day-to-day needs of the voters.”
Rae would not say how much money her campaign has collected so far. Brown said he has just $50,000 in his coffers, while Doolittle has a distinct fundraising advantage, with $250,000 on hand.