Cunningham woes spell campaign dollars for Democrat

By: WILLIAM FINN BENNETT - Staff Writer (nctimes)

U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's likely Democratic challenger in 2006 has raised more than double the campaign donations she expected to raise in the past few months, with more than 60 percent of those donations having come since a mushrooming story broke on the congressman's ties to a Washington defense contractor.

On Wednesday, Cardiff School District Trustee Francine Busby, who launched her campaign against Cunningham earlier this year, reported that her campaign donations have spiked significantly since the news reports surfaced in early June, and a campaign spokesman said that he attributes much of the jump to the Cunningham story.

Also on Wednesday, former gubernatorial candidate George Schwartzman, a minor player who threw his hat in the ring in the 2003 recall election, became the first local Republican to publicly announce that he will challenge Cunningham for the Republican nomination in the March primary.

When Busby recently began mounting her campaign to run against the eight-term congressman in the 2006 election, she set a goal of taking in $50,000 in campaign donations for the second quarter of 2005, a spokesman for her campaign said Wednesday.

At the start of the second quarter, between April 1 and June 11, $38,000 in donations entered Busby's campaign coffers, the spokesman said.

Then on June 12, the story broke of Cunningham's sale of his Del Mar Heights home to the president of a Washington defense contractor at a price that apparently was hundreds of thousands of dollars higher than market rate.

Suddenly, donations to Busby's campaign took off, Busby spokesman Brennan Bilberry said Wednesday. As more stories broke in the following weeks ----- Cunningham's use of yacht in Washington owned by MZM President Mitchell J. Wade, the congressman's questionable use of the congressional seal on knives he sells on his Web site ---- the volume of campaign contributions to Busby continued to grow, Bilberry said.

Between June 12 and June 30, the last day of the quarter, Busby, who ran unsuccessfully against Cunningham in 2004, received an additional $64,000 in contributions. In the 2004 election, Busby raised about $236,000, compared to about $832,000 raised by Cunningham.

Bilberry said he attributes much of that spike in contributions to the controversy surrounding Cunningham.

"His scandal really helped us in fund raising," Bilberry said. "But it wouldn't have helped as much if Francine hadn't been talking about issues relevant to ethics and honesty prior to those scandals."

Busby's office released the second-quarter campaign donation information prior to the Federal Election Commission's filing deadline of July 15. Cunningham's campaign finance information for the same period, which will be included in documents filed by that date, was not available Wednesday, and staff members could not be reached for comment.

With 159,000 registered Republicans and 105,000 registered Democrats, Cunnningham's 50th District seat has long been seen as a safe one for Republicans. However, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee apparently sees his seat as vulnerable for takeover by a Democrat in 2006. On Wednesday, the committee ran in newspapers, including the North County Times, full-page ads slamming the congressman. The title of the ad was "What's happening to Duke Cunningham?"

And the San Diego Democratic Party on Wednesday announced that it will be holding a press conference to talk about the ad campaign at 10 a.m. today at 1651 S. Juniper, No. 202, in Escondido.

Democrats appear to not be alone in seeing Cunningham as vulnerable in 2006. Some Republicans apparently share those feelings.

On Wednesday, Schwartzman, a San Diego businessman, announced that he will be running against Cunningham in the Republican primary in March. Schwartzman ran as an independent in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election, and garnered 12,382 votes statewide and 1,698 votes in the county. On Wednesday, he said that the only reason he ran as an independent in that election was because he had failed to declare his party affiliation in that year. But, "I am a Republican and have been for years," he said.

His decision to run now, rather than wait and see the outcome of the current federal grand jury investigation on Cunningham, is simple, he said.

"I may not have the name recognition that others have and it's important that I get out there first," Schwartzman said.

Cunningham's troubles "accelerated the timing of my decision; that's what put me over the top," Schwartzman said. He added, however, that he has been about mounting a challenge against Cunningham for quite some time, because "he's not in touch with the overwhelming majority of constituents in his district."


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