San Diego Union Tribune

November 29, 2005

More bad news for reeling GOP in Washington
Latest admission by fellow lawmaker rocks Republicans

By Dana Wilkie

WASHINGTON – The fate of Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham is yet another blow to congressional Republicans who have been battered by news of indictments and investigations of their colleagues.

Publicly, there was mostly silence on Capitol Hill yesterday after the former Top Gun fighter pilot stood solemnly before a San Diego federal judge and pleaded guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy charges stemming from his ties to defense contractors.

"Individuals may have sympathy for him as a friend and colleague, but that's going to be tempered by the growing awareness that he's added to (the party's) troubles," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. "They may see him as a friend, but they also see him as Democratic Party ammunition."

Those Republicans who commented yesterday chose to distance themselves from the Rancho Santa Fe lawmaker.

"Duke Cunningham's admission of wrongdoing today is a disappointment for San Diegans and for the many citizens, myself included, who supported his election and public service over the course of many years," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista. "We wanted desperately to hear Duke explain his conduct in a way that made sense to us, but increasingly feared that would not happen."

Cunningham was praised by some for admitting wrongdoing and resigning quickly.

"Normally, you expect people in the public limelight to cling as long as possible," said Mark Petracca, who heads University of California Irvine's political science department.

Some believe that Cunningham's pleas further tarnish a party that has been rocked by the alleged wrongdoings of other GOP lawmakers.

Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas stepped down as House majority leader in September after being indicted in a campaign finance scheme. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission concerning stock transactions in his family's hospital corporation. Federal prosecutors are also considering possible bribery charges against Ohio Rep. Robert Ney.

Then there's the ethical cloud hanging over the White House. In September, federal authorities arrested President Bush's chief procurement officer, David Safavian, for lying to investigators probing lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

In October, a grand jury indicted I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, formerly chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, on perjury and obstruction charges. White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is still under investigation into the leaking of the identity of a CIA agent.

"The attack ads almost write themselves," Pitney said. "One can easily see Democratic ads next year featuring the 'Rogue Gallery of Republicans' who have faced conviction, indictment or investigation."

Republicans countered that the wrongdoings of one lawmaker do not necessarily reflect on others.

"From our point of view, every member stands for re-election individually," said Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "I don't know of any member of Congress who ever lost because of something some other member did or didn't do."

Democrats, however, were quick to pounce.

"This offense is just the latest example of the culture of corruption that pervades the Republican-controlled Congress, which ignores the needs of the American people to serve wealthy special interests and their cronies," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said in a statement.

California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres echoed her remarks – indicating that election-year slogans may already be in the making.

"This guilty plea confirms, once again, that there is a culture of corruption among the Republican Congress and the Bush administration which must be stamped out," Torres said.

Cunningham's resignation will trigger a special election early next year. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee began targeting the 50th Congressional District as soon as Cunningham announced in July he would not seek re-election to a ninth term, according to spokesmen.

Allan Hoffenblum, publisher of the "California Target Book," which monitors political campaigns, said Cunningham's guilty plea should reflect on the GOP "no more than Kevin Shelley will tarnish the Democratic Party because he was forced to resign as (California) secretary of state."

Shelley resigned early this year amid investigations into his use of federal and state funds both as a lawmaker and as secretary of state.

Petracca said that midterm congressional elections, such as next year's, tend to be parochial affairs rarely influenced by outside events.

"Unless this can be threaded into some tapestry that connects to similar things, this probably just hurts the GOP in Cunningham's district. It would be unusual for it to have much of a ripple effect on other GOP races," Petracca said.

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