Scandal isolates Cunningham

San Diego congressman's alleged dealings with a defense contractor could mean trouble for all Republicans.
By George E. Condon Jr.
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Randy Cunningham's political woes are echoing far beyond the boundaries of his north San Diego County district. Only 25 days after the first allegation exploded, the veteran congressman already has emerged as a powerful symbol of what Democrats hope to portray as a Republican congressional leadership grown arrogant and too cozy with big money contributors.

The first public sign of that came Wednesday when he was one of five scandal-tainted Republicans to be featured in full-page newspaper ads run by the Democratic congressional campaign committee. But behind the scenes, Cunningham is a frequent topic of discussion by strategists from both parties trying to assess his vulnerability in the 2006 elections and whether he is tainting other Republicans.

"People are waiting to see when he gets out -- not if he gets out, but when he gets out," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent analyst who closely monitors House elections.

"This is a lot more than innuendo and accusations. This is serious stuff," he said. "And while, officially, his party is behind him here in Washington, there is a significant sense that this is big trouble."

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics who has written extensively on political scandals, said this one is playing out as most scandals do except Cunningham has not been able to fall back on a base that refuses to believe the allegations.

"For many Republicans, the attitude is why take a chance?" he said. "That's a district that is nearly guaranteed to be Republican. They can get rid of Cunningham and keep the seat. Then they don't have to answer any more embarrassing questions."

There have been many such questions and only rare occasions for smiling in these last 25 days for Cunningham. One of the few came Tuesday when supporters serenaded him at the Escondido Rotary Club meeting with a fresh version of "Anchors Aweigh."

But that appearance did not break Cunningham's isolation from the tough questions facing him in Washington or the changed political realities back home.

Since the first story broke June 12, he has canceled several events and has answered none of the dozens of questions arising from his many financial dealings with developers, contractors and political contributors involving two houses, two boats and two mortgages.

For Cunningham, life is dominated by conferences with his lawyers as today's legal concerns outweigh next year's political challenges.

Several of his fellow Republicans have paid tribute to his past service as a Navy fighter pilot in Vietnam. But House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas is one of the few to go beyond that to lavish praise on Cunningham and dismiss the questions. DeLay, of course, has good reason to praise Cunningham -- the San Diegan contributed $5,000 to the fund set up to defend DeLay against allegations he had faced.

There are Republicans back home, though, who don't want others to pile on the embattled congressman until they get more answers. John M. Dadian, a longtime Republican political consultant and lobbyist, ruefully acknowledged that he had heard from many of them when he recently declared of Cunningham "he's dead."

"I wouldn't say that again," he joked. Instead, choosing his words more carefully, he said, "Clearly, these are serious allegations and everybody is not only waiting for the congressman to address them, but hoping against hope that he can address them to their satisfaction."

He added, "This is bad and if it is as bad as it appears on the surface, there is no excuse for it. However, people cannot wipe out more than 30 years of public service, especially a guy who puts his life on the line for his country."

Analysts in Washington are less cautious.

"I don't think Cunningham could be elected in that district anymore," said Charles Cook, a veteran independent analyst who studies House races. "You can make the case that almost any other Republican could, but not Cunningham."

Key to understanding how badly Cunningham has been wounded, Cook said, is to appreciate how different this is from most congressional scandals. "The typical scandal involving a House member is maybe one punch or two. But this has been a steady drumbeat. ... It has just been a relentless bang, bang, bang coming at him from every direction.

"This has been going on for a month and it's not going away."

Sabato noted that Cunningham has a year to recover. But he said the constant flow of revelations is likely fatal. "The drip, drip, drip will kill an elected official every time," he said.

Also potentially lethal for Cunningham, he said, are the pictures of agents raiding his home last week -- "Just unprecedented," he said -- and the fact that the basic facts are so easily understandable. Nobody needs a CPA to understand the allegation that a defense contractor overpaid for Cunningham's house to increase the congressman's take by $700,000 or to have the same contractor name a yacht after him.

"It's so obvious, so incredibly obvious and so thoroughly revolting," said Sabato.

Dadian said the boat was particularly damaging. "Some of the allegations are quite serious," he said. "But what people really wince at was the naming of the boat. That seemed a little brazen. Having a boat named after you -- that just doesn't pass the smell test to the man on the street."

Democrats hope to play on that reaction and link Cunningham to other embattled Republicans. "This is a story line," said Cook, "that Democrats are trying to construct that is similar to the story line that Newt Gingrich constructed for Republicans in 1994 -- arrogant, out of touch, possibly corrupt, abuse of power."

Sabato added that this "may not work for them, but one thing the Democrats have going in their favor is that people are always willing to believe it."

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."