The bizarre scuffle Wednesday between Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and an unnamed U.S. Capitol Police officer is winning the spirited congresswoman few new friends in her caucus. In fact, some Democrats are trying to distance themselves from her.
McKinney has been aggressively publicizing the incident, calling press conferences on each of the past two business days and even attracting a mention on the front page of The New York Times, something that the dozens of House and Senate Democrats combined couldn’t match when they unveiled their homeland-security plan last week.
Now, with McKinney facing a possible arrest warrant, the media frenzy is set only to escalate. The U.S. Capitol Police referred the issue to the U.S. District Attorney’s office for prosecution yesterday.
All of the attention has some Democrats concerned that McKinney is drawing the limelight away from their policy goals and Republicans’ ethical missteps to focus on a momentary, disputed encounter in a Capitol Hill hallway.
“There’s been a lot of eye-rolling,” said an aide to a moderate Democrat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The national attention it’s been getting has been unfortunate. It’s becoming a distraction.”
A Democratic strategist concurred.
“This isn’t the view of Democrats that we want to project in the tough races, one of victims and race-baiting,” the strategist said.
McKinney often elicits strong opinions, even within her own caucus. She has a history of making controversial statements that delight progressives while irking moderates, yet even some of the caucus’s more progressive members have had disagreements with her.
She and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) no longer speak, not even to exchange greetings when encountering each other in the Capitol hallways, said two House Democratic sources. Pelosi twice turned down McKinney’s request to regain her seniority after she was defeated and then reelected in 2002 and 2004. McKinney first came to Congress in 1992.
McKinney spokesman Coz Carson said his boss is an effective member of Congress.
“She’s a gutsy leader who gets out in front of important issues,” he said. “She demonstrates bold and responsible leadership for the people who elected her to office.”
McKinney raised some eyebrows when she attended hearings of the select committee on Hurricane Katrina even after Democratic leaders had decided that only three Democrats — Reps. Gene Taylor (Miss.), Bill Jefferson (La.) and Charlie Melancon (La.) — would participate.
At her news conference Friday, organizers originally expected to have members of Congress join McKinney in a show of support. None ultimately appeared, although Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) sent a statement saying that “the most responsible and useful course for all involved would be to seek a resolution that would be satisfactory to both parties.”
Meanwhile, Republicans have had a field day with the allegations.
Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) called the incident — in which McKinney allegedly struck the officer after he stopped her at a security checkpoint — “disgraceful” and “horrible.” McKinney has said the officer inappropriately touched her.
“I recognize that there are 435 members and I look like a staffer — sometimes an intern — and sometimes memory fails,” said McHenry, who is the youngest member of Congress. “And anyway, I don’t think it’s smart for any member to tussle with a Capitol Police officer. They’re well-trained.”
McHenry and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) plan to introduce a resolution today to show appreciation for the Capitol Police.
Other members were more willing to give McKinney the benefit of the doubt.
“It’s a question of fact and whether the officer put his hand on her first or whether he asked her to stop first and asked for ID. The facts will determine who was in the right and who was in the wrong,” said Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.). “I would be offended and upset if [an officer] put his hands on me prior to asking for ID.”
A House Democratic aide sided with McKinney.
“The notion that they would charge her is just beyond ludicrous, regardless of what happened. It sounds like a misunderstanding. She clearly wasn’t intending to assault a police officer.”