‘Soap Opera’ in Okla.
Ex-Operatives Target Rep. Sullivan in Primary
A handful of operatives who helped elect Rep. John Sullivan (R-Okla.) are now working to defeat him, as an old dispute over money is taking center stage in the Sooner State’s heated 1st district primary.
Sullivan, elected in a special election in January 2002, is facing a challenge from businessman Bill Wortman (R) in the July 27 primary.
While the little-known Wortman has a slim shot at taking down the incumbent, some colorful antics and the cast of characters behind Wortman’s campaign have culminated in a political family “soap opera,” in the words of one observer.
Sullivan’s campaign spokesman calls the conduct vicious and insists that the voters won’t care.
Nevertheless, a couple of former Sullivan allies, including two former campaign managers and a one-time consultant, are either helping Wortman or openly trying to damage the Congressman’s re-election chances.
Take for instance Dave Pearson, a self-described “disgruntled” consultant based in Colorado who recently sent a letter to Sullivan’s contributors calling on them to stop their support of “a crook and a habitual liar.”
Pearson was Sullivan’s media, mail and strategy consultant in his 2002 special election win over former Oklahoma first lady Cathy Keating. Keating had been the favorite to succeed Rep. Steve Largent (R), who resigned in order to run for governor.
But Sullivan won 46 percent to 30 percent in the primary and Keating eventually dropped out of the race before the runoff.
“Many people credit my activities for his win,” Pearson wrote in the letter. “If that is even partially true, I have a sin to repent for, because Mr. Sullivan is the most dishonest, disingenuous and crooked politician I have ever known.”
Pearson claims that Sullivan still owes him almost $20,000 in fees from the last campaign, a charge that he lays out in his letter to Sullivan’s contributors.
Last year, Pearson filed an official complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that Sullivan and his campaign treasurer knowingly filed false reports in an effort to hide campaign debt. Sullivan later conceded that bookkeeping errors were made.
“I never expected to get paid for the work I did,” Pearson wrote. “Mr. Sullivan made that clear. He goes out of his way to besmirch my reputation and laughs while he does it.”
Pearson is not the only former Sullivan operative who now finds himself on the other side of the 1st district primary.
Wortman’s campaign manager Rick Carpenter grew up with Sullivan and ran his first campaign for the state Legislature. He was briefly involved in the Congressman’s Congressional campaign.
Sources also indicated that Pat Hyland, a longtime Oklahoma GOP operative who has done past work for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), is also taking a behind-the-scenes role in aiding Wortman’s campaign. Hyland ran Sullivan’s campaign for Congress and briefly served as his chief of staff before leaving to do consulting work.
“John is in one of these situations where it’s the disgruntled consultant versus the Congressman,” said one knowledgeable Oklahoma Republican.
Another recent example of a similar dispute was showcased in the recent Democratic primary in Virginia’s 8th district, where Rep. Jim Moran (D) faced attorney Andy Rosenberg. Moran’s longtime pollster terminated his relationship with the Congressman and released a scathing letter denouncing Moran just prior to the primary.
The Oklahoma Republican noted that ploys by consultants to retaliate against people they once worked for rarely work.
“It looks like a dispute over money that’s being taken into the political arena to damage this guy because he’s running and they’re not,” said the GOP source. “I don’t think that will be successful. I never saw anybody throw out a Congressman because their consultants were unhappy. It just doesn’t happen.”
Still, the source conceded: “It’s a great soap opera. No question about it.”
Sullivan’s former allies aside, Wortman has also made a splash by dredging up Sullivan’s past and attacking his personal character.
Under the boldface heading “CRIME WATCH,” Wortman prominently displayed Sullivan’s past arrest record in a newspaper-style colored mailer sent to residents in the district last month. The arrests include charges of assault and battery, loitering and public intoxication. Sullivan has admitted to bad behavior as a teenager and has used his personal story to urge young audiences to stay out of trouble.
The flier also points to Sullivan’s heavy spending on franked mail, or constituent correspondence that is sent at taxpayer expense. In 2002 and 2003, Sullivan spent a total of $400,000 on Congressional bulk mail, Wortman alleges.
And the flier highlights Sullivan’s admission that aides to his campaign called into a radio show he was appearing on and asked “softball” questions using assumed names.
Sullivan campaign spokesman Shane Saunders described the primary race as vicious and he charged that Sullivan’s former associates were motivated more by personal interests than what is best for the district’s constituents.
He maintained that both Pearson and Carpenter were let go because there were problems with they way they did their jobs.
“These people have, since they were let go by the Congressman, they have not had any serious employment since,” Saunders said. “Their motivation clearly seems to be to take out John Sullivan at whatever cost. It’s whatever I can do to try to hurt this guy.”
As far as the mailer touting Sullivan’s arrest record, Saunders said the same attempts to dredge up the past had previously been made in vain by Sullivan’s Democratic opponent, Doug Dodd.
“He can’t win on the issues, so he has no other options than to try to attack the Congressman on a personal level,” Saunders said.
Dodd is running for the seat for a third time this November. He got 44 percent in the 2002 special and 42 percent in the November general election.
For his part, Wortman is running to the right of Sullivan and has focused on criticizing his support of spending measures.
“Here we are with a Republican Congress that has just gone nuts up there with their spending,” Wortman said Tuesday. “John Sullivan has voted for every spending increase that came down the pike.”
He also claims that Sullivan recently exaggerated where he fell among the most conservative members of the House.
“It’s just been time after time after time of exaggeration,” he said. “It’s just dishonesty.”
Wortman’s latest FEC report shows he had just $9,000 in the bank at the end of June, after loaning his campaign $40,000. Sullivan ended last month with more than $300,000.
“He called me a sick old man who needed prayer,” Wortman said, recalling how Sullivan has referred to him. “And I’m sick of the government spending. I am a senior citizen, I’m 66, and I do need prayer. And John needs to practice and I would appreciate it.”