Campaign '06: Pork Trumps Scandal in West Virginia

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Questions in Washington have been raised about why millions of dollars of federal money have been steered toward non-profit groups supportive of U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan. But voters in the 12-term Democrat's West Virginia district don't seem to care too much. In West Virginia, after all, pork barrel spending isn't frowned upon; on the contrary, the home state of legendary Senator Robert Byrd, widely considered the king of steering federal dollars to a congressman's home turf, tends to view the practice as just another way to provide jobs for the family down the street, if not for your own. And so far, questions about Mollohan's use of the clout associated with his seat on the appropriations committee have failed to derail his campaign for a 13th term against state lawmaker Chris Wakim, a Republican.

"He remains a strong favorite," said Kevin Leyden, associate professor of political science at West Virginian University in Morgantown. "Although ethics allegations have been thoroughly aired here, they haven't seemed to stick." Indeed, a Majority Watch poll of 1,003 registered voters conducted at the end of August put Mollohan up, 52% to 42%, with a margin of error of 3%. That's easy enough to explain after 24 years in Congress, said Mollohan's campaign manager, Gerry Griffith. "One man's pork is another man's job, another man's progress. People here on the ground can see, hear and touch the results of his work in Congress. Everyone here knows someone who has a job, who is making a positive contribution to our community, because of some project happening over the past 24 years."

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Mollohan was forced off the House ethics committee earlier this year after the FBI seized records from his office amid questions over his role in directing the federal money to non-profit groups that have since supported his campaign. The FBI inquiry is ongoing, but Mollohan has vigorously denied wrongdoing, saying the funds were well spent in hard-pressed West Virginia. In recent years, Mollohan has used his seat on the appropriations committee to earmark funds for dozens of projects, including nearly $2.8 million in 2003 for a law enforcement training center and $3 million in 2004 for a high-tech recycling center in his district.

Wakim's campaign manager, Will Holley, agreed that the whiff of scandal has yet to define the race. "Fundamentally it is a local race, and it is going to be won or lost fundamentally on local issues," Holley said. "Our children and grandchildren are moving out of state in droves, and that needs to stop." In a largely Democratic district that, nevertheless, voted for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004, Holley claims that Mollohan is vulnerable on other issues, such as an amendment to the Constitution banning gay marriage, which he voted against twice. "Whether it is protecting traditional marriage values or protecting our borders, Mollohan has taken views that are frankly contradictory to what the district wants at this point."

Mollohan's staff explains his opposition to the gay-marriage amendment as rooted in respect for state's rights and a belief that the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act makes a constitutional amendment unnecessary. If there is a sentiment that Mollohan is out of step with the district, it's not a widely shared one, said another longtime political observer in Morgantown, associate professor Neil Berch of WVU. Mollohan, who was elected in 1982 to succeed his father in Congress, is a good fit for the district: he is generally conservative on social issues and liberal with the federal purse strings. "He's the Robert Byrd of the House, and people understand him," said Berch. Mollohan hasn't had a close race since 1992, when redistricting reduced West Virginia's number of seats from four to three.

Despite some gains in Republican registration and the vote for President Bush in the last two elections, Leyden points out that West Virginians — and the residents of Mollohan's district in particular — remain largely Democratic. This fall, moreover, some of those who sided with the President last time may find voting Republican less appealing. "The same kind of concerns that are affecting the nation are also affecting this congressional district," Leyden said. "People are concerned about the economy and the President's handling the war in Iraq."

The Wakim campaign trailed the incumbent in fund-raising by a 2-1 margin, but it received a $100,000 boost Aug. 16 from First Lady Laura Bush. About 250 to 300 people turned out for a rally in Fairmont, a small hill community in northwestern West Virginia that calls itself "the friendly city." Wakim has also benefited from a flurry of direct-mail ads and television spots attacking Mollohan for the federal funds he has steered to the non-profit groups Those ads — including one mailer that screams, "The Worst Tradition in Government" — are paid for by the Economic Freedom Foundation, a not-for-profit 527 political organization that has bought ads in West Virginia, Iowa and Georgia.

But disputes about ethics haven't been limited to Mollohan. Some critics have questioned Wakim's statement on his web page and in campaign literature that he is a Harvard University graduate and a veteran of the Persian Gulf War. Holley acknowledged that Wakim, a West Point alum who is now in the state House of Representatives, was an Army officer in Massachusetts during the war, and that his degree was earned at a less competitive extension school run by Harvard but which lacks the competitive admission policies of most of the university's schools. Still, Leyden predicts the race will likely be the closest Mollohan has seen in years. Considering Mollohan's history of runaway victories, however, that may not be enough to unseat him.