A Real, Real Newcomer

Posted April 25, 2003 at 4:36pm

The newest candidate in the long line of potential contenders in Virginia’s 8th Congressional district filed her official statement of candidacy with the Federal Election Commission on April 16.

She registered to vote on April 17.

Melissa Helmbrecht, the 27-year-old director of a Washington-based nonprofit, is the first candidate to formally seek the Republican nomination for the seat now held by embattled Rep. Jim Moran (D).

Helmbrecht — who is getting married on Saturday and is likely to campaign under her married name, Melissa Martin — said she will begin fundraising today and expressed confidence that she will raise enough money to win in the Democratic stronghold.

“Fundraising,” she said of her life at the nonprofit Champions of Hope, “is all I do.”

Helmbrecht is the latest of several candidates or would-be candidates who smell opportunity, if not blood, in the suburban 8th district, which Moran has represented since 1991. After a series of ethical scrapes through the years, Moran has been under extra fire since suggesting in March that Jewish-Americans were leading the call to war in Iraq.

But Helmbrecht said that Moran’s woes had nothing to do with her decision to run for Congress.

“I’m not running because Jim Moran is injured,” she said.

Helmbrecht called her desire to serve in Congress an extension of her work with Champions of Hope — a nationwide organization that encourages young people to, in her words, “answer President Bush’s call for public service” — and other nonprofit agencies she has helped create.

Champions of Hope is best known for organizing a memorial service for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes one year later at the Lincoln Memorial. The organization was criticized in certain quarters when it invited “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A Washington Post TV critic called the move “a promotional stunt” and archly concluded, “the terrorists have won.”

But Helmbrecht has shown a penchant for public relations throughout her young career. Dating back to the age of 16, as a high school student in Florida, she has been profiled dozens of times in newspapers and on television for her community service. She likes to say that volunteering saved her life.

Helmbrecht did her undergraduate work at American University and got a law degree from the University of Denver — where she helped to start a charter school and organized a commemoration of the one-year anniversary of the Columbine High School shootings that emphasized public service.

She moved to the D.C. area in May 2002 to start Champions of Hope, splitting her time between Virginia and New Jersey, where she cared for her elderly grandparents.

It is that nomadic lifestyle that could prove problematic for Helmbrecht at the polls. Already an anonymous flier is circulating in Northern Virginia political circles, calling Helmbrecht a carpetbagger and comparing her to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

“Melissa Helmbrecht, who arrived in a red pickup truck with Florida plates and hails from New Jersey, states that she is the person who can best represent the people of the 8th district, though she has only logged five days in her new apartment,” the flier reads in part.

Records at the Arlington County Voter Registration Office show that Helmbrecht registered to vote in the 8th district on April 17. She concedes that she has just purchased a condominium in Arlington with her fiance and is in the process of moving in.

But Helmbrecht predicted that the voters would be forgiving and would not conclude that she was shopping for a Congressional district to run in.

“I think since I’m only 27 and just got out of school, people will understand that I’m just settling down and have just picked my community,” Helmbrecht said. She insisted that her decision about where to live had nothing to do with Moran’s perceived vulnerability.

“I picked the place first and was going to run for office regardless,” she said, adding that as a young, pro-abortion-rights Republican, “I have a lot in common with my neighbors.”

Certainly, whether she’s Helmbrecht or Martin, she will be far less known in the 8th than most of the other candidates who may run. On the Democratic side, potential challengers to Moran include Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Kate Hanley, state Sen. Leslie Byrne, and former Clinton/Gore administration lawyer Jeremy Bash. Republicans eyeing the race include Capitol Police Officer Mike Riccardi, Assistant Defense Secretary Andre Hollis, Deputy Energy Secretary Kyle McSlarrow (who ran against Moran twice in the 1990s), and Joe McCain, brother of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Although Helmbrecht has met with Mike Lane, the chairman of the 8th district Republican Caucus, and Jonathan Poe, field director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, she has, according to a person close to one of the other candidates, “less name recognition than the rocks you walk on.”

But Helmbrecht has a history of creating organizations out of whole cloth and turning them into powerhouses. The list of groups and corporations affiliated with Champions of Hope reads like a Who’s Who of the Fortune 500 and volunteer worlds. Champions of Hope was scheduled to be the cover feature on this week’s Weekly Reader, the children’s magazine that is distributed in thousands of American schools.

“I think she’s a remarkable person and is the type of young person who could really make a difference in this country,” said David Haspel, a film producer from Los Angeles who met Helmbrecht in Colorado when she was organizing the Columbine tribute. Haspel, who also runs a communications firm, is one of several people who will informally advise the campaign.

Even if national and local Republicans are shrugging right now, Helmbrecht is undeterred.

“Over time I will prove my viability to them,” she said.

Sara Faiwell contributed to this report.