Weathering the Storm

Four Battered California House Republicans Seen as Safe for Now

Posted February 14, 2007 at 6:25pm

Despite months of disparaging press coverage over possible ethical infractions, three California House Republicans insist there has been little political fallout over the controversies and all three intend to run for re-election next year.

Reps. John Doolittle, Jerry Lewis and Gary Miller have been weathering separate ethics-related dust-ups since before the 2006 elections, with a Justice Department investigation of Lewis still under way and an FBI probe of Miller also ongoing. But spokesmen for all three said this week that the bad publicity has not dampened their bosses’ enthusiasm for serving in Congress nor prompted them to forgo re-election.

“Because the charges are baseless, if anything it’s left him more energized,” said Miller’s spokesman, Scott Toussaint. “Mr. Miller fully intends to run for re-election in 2008.”

Lewis spokesman Jim Specht sounded a similar note, as did Doolittle spokesman Richard Robinson. Doolittle has never been under investigation himself, but he was examined for his ties to disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He also has been criticized for paying his wife for political fundraising, and he barely won re-election last year in a conservative Sacramento-area district.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) has received less media attention than his three Golden State colleagues but remains under investigation by the FBI over a land deal. His spokeswoman, Rebecca Rudman, said her boss does intend to run for re-election in the inland Southern California 44th district and has not been discouraged by the probe.

In a state whose Congressional district map is noteworthy for its partisan gerrymandering, all four Members could be fortunate to represent heavily Republican seats.

Miller hails from a suburban district incorporating portions of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties that is situated about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

He has never faced a serious electoral threat in the GOP-leaning 42nd district since ousting scandal-tarred former Rep. Jay Kim (R) in the 1998 Republican primary, and even last year in a tough climate for the GOP he ran unopposed for his fifth term. Praised back home for his attentiveness to his constituents, the multimillionaire Congressman is not considered vulnerable either from a Democratic challenger or in a Republican primary.

But some California Republican insiders worry that they could have another situation on their hands similar to the scandal that engulfed former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) that nearly cost them the GOP-leaning 50th district seat. Republicans held that seat only after spending more than $5 million to hold off the Democrats in a special election last year that saw several GOP candidates beat each other up in an effort to succeed the now-incarcerated former Congressman.

The speculation that there might be something substantial to the investigation into Miller’s connection to a land deal has yet to trickle down to the level of rank-and-file voters. But talk among Republican activists is beginning to percolate about who might be a suitable candidate to replace him in 2008 — or before that.

“There’s no rush to replace [Miller]. But there is a growing concern that ultimately he can’t survive this,” said one California Republican with knowledge of the district.

A list of possible candidates does not yet exist, but state Assemblyman Bob Huff (R) is mentioned by most when they are asked who would be among the leading contenders to replace Miller, whenever he decides to leave Congress and under whatever circumstances.

Toussaint said Miller is unconcerned about the speculation because, he emphasized, there is absolutely nothing to the investigation into his boss. California Republicans will not be blindsided by Miller the way they were by Cunningham, Toussaint insisted.

“There is no merit to [the charges] whatsoever and no concern that there is more than meets the eye,” Toussaint said.

In the Northern California 4th district, located just east of Sacramento, Doolittle already is busy making amends with his constituents following a 2006 election that saw him barely survive a challenge from Democrat Charlie Brown, despite representing one of the most conservatively drawn House districts in the country.

Doolittle beat Brown, a police administrator who already has announced his intention to challenge the Congressman again next year, by just 3 points, winning with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Despite the strong Republican composition of the district and Brown’s failure to oust Doolittle amid a wave election, the Democrats smell blood. California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres said Brown might have won last year’s race if the party had given him more help and said Democrats don’t want to make that mistake again.

“I was out on the campaign trail with him and his wife, and he really resonates with that district,” Torres said. “Did we do enough? Probably not; we should have done more.”

Torres said ousting Doolittle in the 4th and protecting freshman Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) in the 11th district are among the state party’s top priorities in 2008. Torres compared the 4th to the 11th, explaining he is confident of Democrats’ chances there because Democratic voters have been moving into the district from the liberal San Francisco Bay area in increasing numbers.

Robinson, Doolittle’s spokesman, sounded skeptical that California Democrats would follow through on their plans to heavily target his boss, saying he believes they will find richer political targets than a GOP Congressman representing a district with 73,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats — a 17.6 point advantage.

“I think that’s a bunch of posturing. The Democrats are smarter than that,” Robinson said. “If they were going to beat John Doolittle, the last election was their last and likely best chance to do so.”

But apparently Doolittle has been feeling some heat, as he recently circulated an opinion piece in local newspapers pledging to pay more attention to his constituents and announcing he will no longer employ his wife, Julie, as his fundraiser.

Doolittle did not break any laws by doing so. But he suffered politically because the commissions his wife earned enriched their family and appeared unseemly, with Doolittle sounding rather unapologetic about it prior to publishing the opinion piece in January.

In Southern California’s inland 41st district, Lewis appears to remain in firm control of his political destiny, despite an ongoing investigation that has cost him almost $1 million in legal fees and possible ties to Brent Wilkes, the defense contractor involved in the Cunningham scandal who was indicted earlier this week.

Specht, Lewis’ spokesman, said Lewis never announces for re-election this early in the cycle but indicated he has no plans to vacate his Republican-leaning district, which re-elected him with 67 percent of the vote last year. The seat encompasses much of San Bernardino County, including several fast-growing suburbs.

Lewis, the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, has not lost his desire to serve in Congress as a result of his legal situation, though he is frustrated by the notion that people believe he may have done something wrong, Specht said.

“His main focus right now is getting the Republicans back in the majority,” Specht added, explaining that Lewis is disappointed by the investigation but believes it will “play out and be gone.”

Some Republicans speculate that Lewis could decide to retire from Congress as early as next year, but they say if that were the case it likely would be at the behest of his wife, Arlene, who some believe might be more frustrated by the Congressman’s legal situation than he is.