House: GOP Targets Top Ethics Cmte. Democrat
House Speaker Dennis Hastert will travel to Parkersburg, W.Va., on March 10 to campaign for state Del. Christopher Wakim (R).
Well, for one, Wakim is challenging Rep. Alan Mollohan -- who, as the ranking Democrat on the House Ethics Committee, has been a major thorn in the side of the House Republican leadership over the past year. Last spring Mollohan led the Democrats' effort to block an attempted rewrite of ethics rules that would have allowed complaints to the committee to be more easily dismissed. Then last summer Mollohan refused to allow Ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash) to insert his top aide as majority staff director of the the committee.
A top Hastert aide told the Parkersburg News-Sentinel that voters in Mollohan's district were unhappy with the congressman's alleged obstruction on the Ethics Committee. But Ron Bonjean, Hastert's communications director, did not address the ethics matter specifically when asked about the Hastert's trip. "The Speaker always plays offense where we see Democratic members who are vulnerable," Bonjean said.
Mollohan said that the Hastert visit and the quotes in the Parkersburg paper indicate to him that "the Speaker intends to carry this ethics fight into my campaign." Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wondered whether targeting Mollohan is "Hastert's idea of real ethics and lobbying reform."
Regardless of Hastert's motivations, his trip to Mollohan's 1st District is sure to raise the profile of the race. Mollohan has not been a target for national Republicans in the past, but several factors -- in addition to his role on the Ethics committee -- have brought him into the crosshairs.
First, Mollohan's seat, which encompasses the northern third of West Virginia and includes Parkersburg, Morgantown and Wheeling, has grown more Republican over the past decade. President Bush won it with 54 percent of the vote in 2000 and 58 percent in 2004. The dominant media market in the district -- Wheeling -- is also extremely cheap, meaning that national party committees can play heavily here without making a major dent in their bottom lines.
Mollohan has also not done the fundraising legwork to insulate himself from a challenge, bringing in just $107,000 so far this cycle; he ended 2005 with a paltry $40,000 in the bank. Wakim raised $79,000 in the final three months of last year -- $50,000 of which came in the form of a personal loan. He closed 2005 with $74,000 in the bank.
The X-factor in the contest is how voters in the district react when informed that Mollohan received $23,000 in donations from MZM Inc., the firm implicated in the massive bribery scheme surrounding former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.). Although the donations were perfectly legal, Mollohan chose to donate them to charity after they were first reported by Roll Call's John Bresnahan.
Defeating Mollohan is no easy task. He has held the seat since 1982, and his father held it for many years before that. He is also paying attention to his race now, according to Democratic campaign operatives, and knows he could well be in a tight contest come November.
As for whether his willingness to block Republicans on the Ethics Committee in the past year will come back to haunt him at the ballot box, Mollohan is decidedly skeptical. "I do things very consciously," he said. "I didn't by accident refuse to let them adopt those rules, and I didn't by accident not allow them to appoint their staff to run the committee."
March 1, 2006; 2:35 PM ET
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