Three-term Florida Congressman Tom Feeney has not been criminally charged in the Washington corruption scheme that sent super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff to federal prison. But the taint of the Republican's 2003 golf trip to Scotland on Abramoff's dime is derailing his re-election campaign.
The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call on Oct. 7 put Feeney in 6th place on its top 10 list of most endangered congressional incumbents. The seat, House District 24 in Republican-leaning East Central Florida, includes portions of the Orlando metro area, Daytona Beach and Kennedy Space Center.
Feeney helped draw the district boundaries to his benefit during the 2002 reapportionment while he was Speaker of the Florida House. But that advantage, which in past elections translated into big, double-digit winning margins, has vaporized. The latest poll, released Sept. 18 by Democratic challenger Suzanne Kosmas, a well-financed, term-limited state legislator and businesswoman from New Smyrna Beach, showed Feeney only one percentage point ahead of Kosmas, a statistical dead heat. For the first time, Feeney lost the endorsement of his hometown newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel, which noted on October 12 that Feeney's power has waned, his "hard-right ideology" [on issues like immigration reform, energy policy and the bailout bill, which he voted against twice] would make him irrelevant in Democrat-majority House and that the community has a capable alternative in Kosmas.
So, in an effort to somehow get past the stench of scandal, Feeney took a calculated gamble, airing a 30-second TV spot for 10 days beginning in late September to apologize for his Abramoff-funded golf vacation. That trip has earned him scrutiny in an ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation; a featured spot for three years running on the list of most corrupt government officials compiled by the nonpartisan watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW); and plenty of ammunition for Kosmas.
"Five years ago, when I was first elected to Congress I was invited on trip to Scotland," Feeney says in his commercial. "I found out later that it was paid for by a corrupt lobbyist. It was a rookie mistake and I did everything I could to make it right. I reported it to the ethics committee and I paid the money back. I embarrassed myself, I embarrassed you and for that, I'm very sorry. I'm Tom Feeney and I approve this message because public service is about being honest, even when you make a mistake.'
But is his act of contrition enough to save his seat? Feeney thinks it helped.
"If people are just voting emotionally and they're looking for someone to be mad at, that [Abramoff scandal] would be a problem and we felt it was very important to get that out of the way very early in the race," Feeney said in an interview with TIME. "That immediately takes the issue off the table."
But as even Feeney probably knows, that is wishful thinking. "His ad brought it to the attention of many people and the basic response is too little too late... and how can you call yourself a rookie when you've been 20 years in public life," said Kosmas, who has stressed expanding healthcare and alternative energy in addition to hammering Feeney on ethics in government.
Political analyst and University of Central Florida professor Aubrey Jewett, who also resides in Feeney's district, said the ad could backfire as otherwise unengaged voters get clued in. "If they had asked me, I would have suggested not to run it," Jewett said. "It's hard to say exactly how it will pan out. It did bring the scandal to more people's attention." Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, author of The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words, says political apologies are rarely perceived as genuine, leaving in question their impact.
"For those who would think this is a fundamental violation of the public trust in his role as a congressperson, this is not a sufficient apology. Maybe there is none possible. But if you're a Republican and you desperately want a reason to vote for a Republican, then you could use that," Tannen said.
Kosmas claims that Feeney's relationship with Abramoffwhich Feeney maintains doesn't go beyond that one tripis symbolic of the culture of corruption in the nation's capital. "I think this issue is an example of him being what I refer to as a poster boy of what's wrong in Washington, where it's a focus on things that have much more to do with politics, power and cronyism than it is on really taking a hard look at what's important to the people that he's been sent to Washington to represent."