The October Surprises of 2006

The latest in a series of October surprises leading up to the midterm elections targeted Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee. It depicted Mehlman as bowing to wishes of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the symbol of GOP corruption, in firing an innocent bureaucrat. The problem with the story is that this bureaucrat was a notorious political operative inside the Clinton administration.

At issue was the dismissal early in 2001, the first year of the Bush administration, of Allen Stayman from a State Department post. The accounts alleged that he was sacked because he advocated improved labor conditions in the U.S.-owned Northern Marianas in the Western Pacific, whose government was represented by Abramoff. Nowhere was it mentioned that Stayman left a long paper trail of partisan Democratic activity and hardly could be expected to survive in a Republican administration.

The attack on Mehlman typified the standard October surprise: information about an event years in the past distributed by a partisan operative as a campaign nears its close. The most successful recent example came in 2000, when Al Gore’s campaign waited until the last week before the presidential election to release never before published information about a drunken driving conviction of young George W. Bush 24 years earlier. That throttled Bush’s momentum and very nearly elected Gore.

October surprises have abounded this year. The revelation of Rep. Mark Foley’s past improper advances to former congressional pages dominated the news for two weeks and stifled what had seemed to be a Republican upsurge. The subsequent disclosure of questionable land transactions and use of campaign funds by Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid did not get nearly as much attention.

The reports about Reid did not begin to counter the Democratic national campaign theme of a climate of corruption under Republican rule in Washington. The Mehlman story, first reported in the Los Angeles Times Oct. 15, fits the image of Abramoff running rampant in the White House and winning governmental action for his clients with favors for presidential aides.

The not so hidden hand promoting this story is the fiercely partisan Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee. Waxman had talked Republican Chairman Tom Davis into a pre-election release showing over 400 contacts at the White House by Abramoff. E-mails by the Abramoff lobbying operation claimed credit for getting Mehlman, then White House political director, to sack Stayman. Waxman suggested that Mehlman has "violated fundamental ethics regulations and the law."

The response by Mehlman that he does not remember getting rid of Stayman on its face sounds like a politician’s typically bad memory. But that Mehlman really had no recollection of the case rings true because he did not immediately cite Stayman’s political track record.

The reappearance of Stayman’s name after a five-year absence rang alarm bells for Republican majority staffers on the House Natural Resources Committee, who battled Stayman when he ran the Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs. Documents in the committee indicate Stayman’s office was engaged in legally questionable political action against several Republican House members — including the then majority leader and majority whip, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay.

Supposedly isolated from all political affairs, Stayman’s staff in 1997 asked the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee how to contact opponents of Armey, DeLay and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Stayman wrote a Democratic National Committee draft press release that year (never consummated) attacking the then governor of the Marianas.

Earl Devaney, the Interior Department’s inspector general, testified to Congress in 2001 that the behavior of Stayman’s office was the "most egregious" he had seen in 30 years because of his political activity. Republican Rep. Don Young, then Natural Resources chairman, said Stayman "failed to end a wide range of prohibited political activities" in his office and "may have engaged in them himself."

In the two years before he was fired as a civil servant, Stayman donated $1,400 to the Democratic National Committee and $500 to the Gore campaign. Not surprisingly, Stayman later went to Capitol Hill as a House Democratic staffer. Here is a hardened political infighter, not a hapless bureaucrat. In October surprises, the truth sometimes is the victim.