The NRCC, Bilbray and Busby trade barbs

The race to succeed Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) degenerated into mudslinging last week as the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and Democratic candidate Francine Busby exchanged charges of aiding and abetting unsavory acts.

On Friday, the NRCC started airing a television spot accusing Busby of praising a Cardiff, Calif., schoolteacher accused of trying to obtain child pornography.

In the ad, the announcer maintains that “Busby even praised a teacher reported to have child porn, saying she was always willing to lend a hand. That’s dangerous. Liberal Francine Busby. Poor management. Poor judgment. Dangerous.”

The NRCC attributes Busby’s praise for the teacher, who was under investigation by the FBI for possessing child porn, to a statement Busby made to The San Diego Union-Tribune on April 29, 2004, while serving on the Cardiff School District board.

“He is a teacher who put in a lot of extra time. He was always willing to lend a hand. I was shocked at the investigation,” Busby told the paper.

NRCC spokesman Jonathan Collegio says the incident was part of a pattern of Busby’s mismanagement of the school district.

“The ad shows that Busby was a poor manager and had poor judgment to the point of being dangerous,” he said.

In a statement, Busby said she is outraged by the GOP attack.

“This is the most outrageous and slanderous attack I could even imagine,” she said. “I have devoted my entire life to protecting children and fighting for better education, and to claim that I sympathize with child pornographers is the most despicable low anyone could sink to.”

“If Brian Bilbray had an ounce of integrity, he would call for this ad to be taken off the air,” Busby spokesman Brennan Bilberry added. “What is even more disgusting is that Brian Bilbray is standing by this ad, which is more evidence that he will say and do anything to protect his pay-for-play ways.”

Busby’s campaign has released an ad responding to the claim. It features Andy Brown, a Republican member of the school board, calling the NRCC ad “outrageous and untrue.”

Bilbray spokesman Steve Danon says the campaign had no involvement with the production or placement of the ad and does not stand by it, although the campaign has not asked the NRCC to pull the ad. The NRCC confirms that Bilbray had no involvement with the ad.

Danon admits that the ad “is a little over the top” and said he wishes “the NRCC had given us a heads-up on this.”

Danon also had a message for the NRCC: “We wish we could run our own campaign.”

Last week, it was Busby who was on the attack.

On Thursday, she demanded that Bilbray return $14,000 in contributions from Cunningham and his alleged co-conspirator Brent Wilkes.

Bilbray claimed to have returned the money in December, but Busby, partially retracting her earlier claim, pointed out that Bilbray had returned only $6,000 last December and that $8,000 in tainted funds remained in Bilbray’s accounts.

“If they want to play guilt by association, we can play that all day,” Danon responded, pointing to money Busby received from Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), who resigned his spot on the House ethics committee last week over negative publicity about his real-estate dealings. “We are not going to engage in tit for tat.”

But Bilberry said there was no comparison.

“Lobbyist Bilbray has made a career of corruption with his pay-to-play deals,” Bilberry charged.

“This is typical lobbyist Bilbray — say you are getting rid of corrupt money and then actually hold on to to most of it to fund your campaign.”

Danon also refused to back down.

“This is a complete act of desperation that she wants to continue to play guilt by association,” Danon responded. “When [Busby] has something substantive to say, let’s discuss the issues.”

Dr. Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College who has been following the race closely, said he believes that Bilbray has the edge but that the race remains competitive.

“As the margins get closer, the attacks will get hotter,” he predicted. “Look for 527 groups and other outsiders to come in for blood. A tight special election draws political-attack artists in the same way that an open picnic basket attracts bears.”