Gizzi On Politics: October 20

Will ‘Accidental Congressman’ Get Axed?  

For two years, Florida Republicans have referred to Democrat Tim Mahoney as the “accidental congressman” because of the unusual circumstances of his election: When Republican Rep. Mark Foley became embroiled in scandal and quickly resigned from office on Sept. 29, 2006, Democratic nominee Mahoney suddenly became a force to be reckoned with in the Sunshine State’s 16th District. Because it was so late in the election cycle, Republicans were unable to get Foley off the ballot in the district and put on their substitute candidate, State Rep. Joe Negron. However, following a court ruling that votes cast for Foley would be counted for Negron, the local GOP waged a lively campaign using the memorable slogan “Punch Foley for Joe.” Joe came close, but fell short. Mahoney won 50 percent to 48 percent over Foley/Negron.  

Given the circumstances, Mahoney was almost always cited by pundits and Republican operatives as the Democratic House member likeliest to lose in ’08  

Last week, the odds on the 52-year-old Mahoney’s being a likely loser shortened tremendously following an ABC News report that the congressman paid $121,000 to his former staffer and mistress Patricia Allen and then arranged a $50,000-a-year job for her with a Nashville, Tenn., public relations firm.  

The sensational news appeared on ABC’s website and featured a recording of a telephone conversation of Mahoney’s angrily firing someone identified as Allen and telling her: “The only person that matters is, guess who? — me! Do you understand that? This is how life really is.”  

In a statement last week, the embattled congressman (who is married) claimed the allegations “are based on hearsay” and called on the House Ethics Committee to make a full investigation. Although he did not say the charges were untrue, Mahoney predicted that “I will be vindicated” by the Ethics Committee probe.  

But, with Congress out of session until after November 4, Mahoney will first have to get the vindication from the voters by being re-elected. That, understandably, is now more uncertain. Last month, a Lance Tarrance poll showed Mahoney leading the Republican nominee Tom Rooney 48 percent to 41 percent. Two weeks ago, attorney Rooney got a huge publicity boost when he addressed an overflow crowd in Boca Raton and was followed on the podium by GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.  

Does the dramatic new development provide a enough of lift to Rooney’s chances? Rooney spokesman Jeff Ostermayer told me that “things are unfolding and moving forward. We’re running the same campaign as always, based on issues.” As to inquiries about the Mahoney affair, Ostermayer said: “We’ve had numerous media calls and we’re still digesting them. This is not going away soon.”  

A few observers of the situation recalled how in ’06, following news accounts of his scandalous behavior, Foley was out of the race and out of Congress in less than a day. As the story about Mahoney continued to come out last week, including late-breaking reports of a second extramarital affair, the Democratic lawmaker appears determined to hang onto office and his re-election bid.  

Young Mississippi Man in a Hurry

Brad White may have had the fastest rise ever of any Republican in the Magnolia State. He got started as a Teenage Republican when he was14, handing out leaflets and walking precincts for Kirk Fordice in his successful 1991 bid to become Mississippi’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. At 18, as he was entering junior college, White was elected to the GOP Executive Committee in his home of Simpson County. A year later, he became county chairman. Following stints in the State Department of Transportation and as executive director of the Economic Development Authority in Simpson County, White was recently elected Republican state chairman at 31, the youngest state GOP leader in the nation.  

“When [State Chairman] Jim Herring said he was stepping down in May, Gov. [Haley] Barbour called and asked me if I would be willing to serve as a full-time chairman,” said White, who oversaw the get-out-the-vote effort in Barbour’s winning re-election bid last year. “My reaction was ‘Wow! Getting paid for doing your hobby! You can’t beat that.’”

So when Herring formally retired after the Republican National Convention last month, White became his successor at the party helm.  

Like just about everyone in Mississippi, the new chairman believes the McCain-Palin ticket will carry his state and its six electoral votes in a landslide. And, like many other conservative party leaders, White emphasized to me that John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate “really gave energy to the folks here. They believe in her. We ordered 10,000 yard signs on the Monday after she was picked for the ticket and, by Wednesday, they were all gone.”  

Will Roger Wicker — appointed to the Senate last year after fellow Republican Trent Lott resigned — win the remainder of Lott’s term over former Democratic Gov. (1997-2001) Ronnie Musgrove, I asked White.

“I think so,” the chairman replied, noting that polls show it’s a close race. “Look, my mentor Gov. Fordice left the state with a surplus and in top economic condition when he stepped down. Musgrove came in and put us in the worst economic situation in memory. He was a dismal failure as governor and we’re going to get that message out.”  

Even with a presidential race and a hot Senate contest going on, White is also looking ahead to 2011, the year when Barbour must step down as governor after two consecutive terms. White is aiming not only to retain the governorship but to increase the one-seat majority Republicans have in the 52-seat state senate and take control of the state house of representatives. With liberal House Speaker Billy McCoy fighting with Barbour and Democrats holding a 122-to-48 seat edge over Republicans, “we’re going to launch campaigns in every possible district we can,” vows White.  

Any discussion with White inevitably ends with his vision of mobilizing hundreds of volunteers — people who actually give their time for political chores at no cost — to make major gains in local and county office. As he told me, “Going back to when I was first volunteering for campaigns as a teenager, people who do the legwork because they believe in a candidate have been invaluable. In my own county, we’ve elected two supervisors, the county judge, constable, many mayors and aldermen, and a majority of election commissioners. It is through that success at the grass-roots level that we will have Republican leaders for the state throughout the 21st Century.”  

Here Comes The Judge  

With John McCain’s campaign writing off Michigan and its 17 electoral votes, worries about endangered Republican Representatives Tim Walberg and Joe Knollenberg have greatly increased recently.  As for the other major race in the Water Wonderland, supporters of Chief Justice Cliff Taylor have mixed feelings about his chances. On one hand, Federalist Society member Taylor — one of four justices on the seven-member Supreme Court often dubbed “the court Ronald Reagan wished he had” — dodged a bullet when well-known Democrats such as former Gov. (1982-90) James Blanchard said no to challenging him. The Democratic nominee is much lesser-known Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Diane Marie Hathaway.  

Nonetheless, almost all of the major unions have endorsed Hathaway, and her campaign is run by the wife of the state AFL-CIO president. Trial lawyers have contributed substantially to her campaign and recent billboards paid for by the left-wing Progressive Women’s Alliance tell voters: “YOUR Michigan Supreme Court rated WORST in the Nation.” While this is a not-very-subtle suggestion that the current conservative-controlled court is rated “worst,” the truth, however, is that a yet-unfinished University of Chicago study does say that one incarnation of the Michigan Supreme Court was the worst in the nation, but that was in 1998-2000, when it was dominated by Democrats and liberal Republicans and has nothing to do with today’s “strict constructionist” court.