Politics 2005: Week of July 25

Top Gun Down; Kaloogian Up

Aug. 22, 1998:  “Duke [Cunningham] is my congressman and he will have that seat as long as he wants. But, in answer to your question, yes—if he ever decides to leave, I will run for Congress to succeed him.” So said California Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian over dinner with me at Fio’s Restaurant in the gaslamp district of San Diego. He was saying what just about everyone involved in local Republican politics took for granted: Eight years after he scored a dramatic upset over a Democratic incumbent, Randy (Duke) Cunningham—whose dashing exploits as a Vietnam air ace were brought to the silver screen by Tom Cruise in Top Gun—had become an institution at home and in Congress. But, in the event Cunningham ever decided to retire, the Republican certain to run for his seat would be Kaloogian, one of the premier conservative “movers and shakers” in the Golden State.

July 14, 2005: The scenario we discussed seven years ago but never thought would soon come about, did indeed unfold. At 63, and after 16 years in Congress, an emotional Cunningham (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 95%) told reporters he would not seek re-election. The pilot-politician is under a dark cloud, as federal authorities are probing his relationship with a defense contractor who bought Cunningham’s home at a what appears to have been a highly inflated price. Mitchell Wade of the MZM Inc. firm, who has several lucrative Pentagon contracts, resold the Cunningham house only a year later for hundreds of thousands less than he paid and also allowed the congressman to live on his boat, the Duke Stir, which is docked in Washington. Days before Cunningham’s announcement, federal agents raided the boat, Cunningham’s home in San Diego and Wade’s MZM offices.

“I can defend myself against these allegations,” said Cunningham, a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, “but I don’t think I can do these things effectively in the midst of a political campaign.”

Within hours of Cunningham’s retirement statement, the 45-year-old Kaloogian declared for Congress from a most unusual place: through a press release issued as he was jetting back from Baghdad, where he had met with troops as part of the “Voices of Soldiers” tour organized by his group, Move America Forward, which supports the Iraq War. Like most other San Diego GOP leaders, Kaloogian voiced support for Cunningham and confidence that the retiring lawmaker would be vindicated of the charges against him.

Like Herschensohn and Burton

A graduate of Michigan State University and Pepperdine University Law School, Kaloogian settled in San Diego to practice law and almost immediately plunged into conservative politics. One of his first moves after joining a local firm was to write a $1,000 check to conservative Bruce Herschensohn’s winning bid for the GOP Senate nomination in 1992, a key modern cause for Golden State conservatives.

Two years later, Kaloogian won a hotly contested primary for an open Assembly seat. He quickly emerged as a conservative point man on issues ranging from “tough-love” welfare reform to halting services for illegal immigrants in California. In discussing his upcoming bid for Congress, Kaloogian made it clear that he parted company with the Bush Administration on the issues of government spending and illegal immigration. He said: “I have campaigned for the President and support him on most things, when he is right. But he’s not right when the cost of government programs is unchecked and when nothing is being done to prevent people from coming to the U.S. outside the regular legal channels.”

Like the late Rep. (1964-83) Phil Burton (D.-Calif.) on the left, Kaloogian meshed solid ideological stands on issues with canny political skills, taking a role in both leadership races for conservatives in Sacramento and contests for control of the GOP organization in San Diego County.

Kaloogian was “termed out” of the Assembly in 2000 and may well be competing against sitting office-holders for the House nod. Among the possible candidates are Mark Wyland, who succeeded him in the Assembly; state Sen. Bill Morrow, who lives in the neighboring 49th District and lost a bid for Congress there in 2000 to fellow Republican Darrell Issa; and county Supervisors Bill Horn and Pam Slater. All but Slater are considered conservatives.

Kaloogian has an advantage over the others: The 74th Assembly district he represented for six years is almost contiguous with the lines of Cunningham’s 50th District.

“And it is not, by any means, as though I’ve been out of politics since leaving the Assembly,” Kaloogian told me, pointing out he has been organizing groups such as the first committee to work for recalling former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in ’03 and a more recent group he co-chaired to delineate abuses of the United Nations and drum up support for John Bolton’s nomination as ambassador.

In a district in which Cunningham rarely had a tough general election and where President Bush won 55% of the vote last fall, the Republican primary next June is considered tantamount to election.

Short Takes

Abraham Out: A match with the woman who unseated her husband from the Senate in 2000 was scratched by Jane Abraham, who announced last week that she would not run against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D.-Mich.) in ’06. The onetime head of the conservative Susan B. Anthony Fund and wife of former Republican Sen. (1994-2000) and Secretary of Energy (2001-2005) Spence Abraham said that, after weeks of exploring the race, she concluded it was not the right thing for her from a “family standpoint.” The Abrahams have a 12-year-old and 8-year-old twins and would have had to move from their McLean, Va., home had she become a candidate.

Her decision leaves the Rev. Keith Butler, a black former Detroit councilman, as the lone heavyweight Senate contender. Sources in the Water Wonderland, however, say he may face competition from the more moderate Jim Nicholson, a wealthy Grosse Pointe Farms businessman who lost the 1996 Senate primary to conservative Ronna Romney.

Rossi Out: Republican hopes of unseating Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell (D.-Wash.) next year suffered a major blow with the “no-go” announcement of their strongest potential horse: former state Sen. Dino Rossi, who was finally declared a loser in last year’s race for governor by 129 votes on the third count and after a court decision. Numerous polls showed the conservative Rossi, now riding a wave of sympathy from Evergreen State voters, handily defeating narrow 2000 winner Cantwell.

Rossi’s decision to forgo a Senate race came as no surprise to fellow conservatives who knew him well. Freshman state Rep. Christopher Strow (R.-Whidbey Island), for example, told me before Rossi’s announcement: “Dino could have run for the Senate or the House last year. But, like George W. Bush, he believed you could really accomplish the most as governor.” Strow predicted that Rossi would make another run for the governorship in 2008 against Democratic incumbent Christine Gregoire.