t r u t h o u t | Report

Thursday 06 September 2007


Democratic House Officials Recruited Wealthy Conservatives

By Matt Renner


This letter sent from then DCCC Head Rahm Emanuel to Democratic House hopeful Jan Schneider underscores a DCCC policy of remaining "neutral" in primary races. Schneider soon came to doubt the letter's sincerity.


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    It was the day after Christmas 2005 and Christine Cegelis sat alone at her dining room table, trying to figure out how to tell her campaign volunteers that she was going to drop out of the 2006 Democratic primary.


    The next evening she was to meet with friends and colleagues who had organized around her candidacy for the House of Representatives in the 6th District of Illinois. Her volunteers had walked block after block of the suburban district and spent hours making phone calls to solicit donations and promote the campaign. Many of these people had been at Cegelis's side during her 2004 campaign and witnessed the fruits of their labor when long-time Republican Representative Henry Hyde decided to retire instead of facing Cegelis again in 2006. This was their shot to have a national impact.


    But pressure coming from the national Democratic Party was too great. The Democrats had found a challenger for Cegelis, an Iraq veteran named Tammy Duckworth. Contributions were pouring into the opposing campaign and Duckworth was shuttled into the national media spotlight. Cegelis began receiving calls from Democratic members of Congress informing her that they were planning to support Duckworth.


    Some of Cegelis's own paid campaign staff implored her to drop out; and she had every reason to listen. She had only $40,000 in the bank, her campaign manager had given up on the campaign and given her office staff two weeks' paid vacation without Cegelis' permission, and her media coordinator had recently quit. Rumor had it that Illinois Senator Barack Obama was going to star in television commercials for Duckworth - star power the Cegelis campaign could never match.


    The next day when she sat down in her campaign office with her twelve closest volunteers, Cegelis prepared herself to admit defeat. She laid out the worst-case scenario: The Democratic Party was willing to spend millions of dollars to defeat her in the primary. If she did manage to beat Duckworth, the party would not help her in the general election, leaving the campaign on its own to face a Republican candidate who was hand picked by the national Republican Party.


    Instead of agreeing to quit, every one of her volunteers looked her in the eye and said, "We are here to fight."


    In May 2004, a former candidate for the New York State Legislature named Cynthia Pooler founded November Victories and Democrat Unity, online forums for new candidates who were running for Congress as Democrats.


    "Before you knew it, candidates started talking about the difficulties they were having with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic leadership," Pooler said.


    According to Democratic candidates who ran for House of Representative seats in 2006, Rahm Emanuel, then head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, took sides during the Democratic primary elections, favoring conservative candidates, including former Republicans, and sidelining candidates who were running in favor of withdrawal from Iraq.


    Appointed as head of the DCCC by then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Emanuel spearheaded the Democratic Party effort to regain control of the House of Representatives during the 2006 election cycle. Emanuel claimed credit for the Democratic takeover and was promoted to chairman of the Democratic Caucus, the fourth-highest ranking position in the House. But his election tactics have been criticized by progressive activists and former Congressional candidates.


    According to his critics, Emanuel played kingmaker by financially supporting his favored candidates during primary contests with other Democrats. His critics say that this interference was in direct contradiction of a DCCC policy to "remain neutral" in party primaries.


    According to Doug Thornell, spokesperson for the DCCC, "The policy of the DCCC is not to get involved in primaries, unless there is an unusual circumstance that demands it. I cannot speculate on what those circumstances might be. The majority of these cases [2008 primaries] will be left up to the voters on the ground. Meddling hasn't taken place this cycle, and for the most part last cycle. That isn't an accurate way to describe what happened. We are cognizant of having local support for our candidates."


    Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, would not comment on the DCCC's alleged interference.


    However, a source close to the DNC indicated that there was disagreement between Dean and Emanuel over election tactics. In his recent book, "The Thumpin'," Naftali Bendavid, a journalist who spent months inside the DCCC operation and at Emanuel's side, reported a heated conversation between Dean, Emanuel and Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) regarding election strategies of the DCCC and the DNC. At the time, Dean was focusing on helping local organizations across the country to mobilize their communities to support Democrats. Emanuel wanted to focus the resources of the national party on specific races that were the most likely to be competitive for Democrats. According to Bendavid, Emanuel said to Dean, "You're nowhere, Howard. Your field plan is not a field plan. That's fucking bullshit ... I know your field plan - it doesn't exist. I've gone around the country with these races. I've seen your people. There is no plan, Howard."


    How Emanuel came to his decisions about which candidates to support against Democratic opponents is known only to Emanuel and his staff. Emanuel declined direct comment on this story. But an examination of individual races reveals a pattern of financial and political support for wealthy conservative candidates and an assault on their grassroots-supported opponents who were running on platforms that included a full withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.


    Illinois's 6th District: Christine Cegelis vs. Tammy Duckworth


    A well-documented instance of interference by the DCCC during a Democratic primary occurred during the contest between Christine Cegelis and Tammy Duckworth. Cegelis, a strong proponent of withdrawal from Iraq, encountered unexpected and effective opposition from the DCCC.


    Cegelis challenged former 16-term Republican Congressman Henry Hyde in 2004. An information technology specialist, Cegelis had no previous experience in politics, but decided to face off against an entrenched incumbent Republican. Her 2004 campaign, run on a meager budget with mostly volunteer staff, was able to create a tightly knit grassroots infrastructure in the Illinois 6th Congressional District. In 2004, Cegelis received just over 44 percent of the vote. The 82- year-old Hyde decided to retire rather than face another reelection campaign in 2006. This seat became a top target for the Democratic leaders and a microcosm of a much larger battle for the future of the Democratic Party.


    Emanuel, himself a congressman from the neighboring 5th District of Illinois, apparently tried to recruit six different candidates to run against Cegelis. According to Kevin Spidel, campaign manager for the Cegelis campaign, all of Emanuel's attempts failed because the potential candidates "all said 'hell no!' They knew the resentment they would face. If you were in the district, you knew how much Cegelis was loved. She built her own machine."


    Eventually, Emanuel found a candidate who lived just outside the district, Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth, a helicopter pilot who was severely injured in combat in Iraq, was convinced to run against Cegelis by Emanuel and two Democratic heavyweights, Illinois Senators Dick Durbin and Barack Obama.


    Duckworth was not a proponent of a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq. The Los Angeles Times, quoting Duckworth, reported that she believed the military should not "'simply pull up stakes' in Iraq because it would 'create a security vacuum' and 'risk allowing [Iraq] ... to become a base for terrorists.'" According to the same article, Duckworth supported "a pullout of US forces on a schedule based on the training of Iraq's armed forces."


    Expedited withdrawal from Iraq was a main plank of the Cegelis campaign platform.


    According to Bendavid's book, "Duckworth quickly became the center of a nasty fight over Emanuel's tactics." According to Bendavid, "Emanuel, Durbin, and other Democratic leaders did not believe Cegelis was working hard enough or raising sufficient money ... [Emanuel, Durbin, and other Democratic leaders] used their clout to persuade Duckworth to run and to direct money, attention, and endorsements her way."


    Tim Bagwell, a grassroots activist and Cegelis campaigner, said that Duckworth was "hot-wired" into the national media and fund-raising circuit by the DCCC. George Stephanopoulos, who served in the Clinton administration with Emanuel, interviewed Duckworth on his Sunday morning ABC News program, elevating her to national prominence.


    According to Spidel, the Cegelis campaign was prevented from accessing Democratic fund-raising and Political Action Committee lists held by the DCCC. Cegelis said that many of the potential donors she contacted had been instructed by the DCCC not to give her campaign money. She felt that she was locked out.


    "To tell you I didn't take it personally is wrong," Cegelis said, adding, "this was the wrong way to choose a representative. It is wrong of parties to exclude people from the primary elections. The primary is the time for the people to choose who is on the ballot; those decisions should not be made in back rooms."


    Bendavid goes on to quote Emanuel saying of Cegelis, "If she would only work as hard as she would goddamn whine.... She's the only one who says, 'What can you do for me?" adding, "[Cegelis] could absolutely win. She's just not doing it."


    Emanuel's assertion about Cegelis's work ethic was hotly contested by members of her campaign.


    Cegelis said that she woke up at 4 a.m. every day to go to train stations in the district to shake hands with commuters during the morning rush hour. Then around 9 a.m. she would get on the phone in her campaign headquarters to try and bring in contributions. She would walk to a volunteer's house near her headquarters, where she would nap on the couch from 4:30-6 p.m. After dinner she would get into her car and drive to different neighborhoods for "Coffee with Christine," small gatherings in the homes of constituents of the 6th District where neighbors would gather to share their ideas with Cegelis.


    According to Spidel, Emanuel worked against Cegelis because of her support for withdrawal from Iraq and her outspoken opposition to "free trade" legislation like the Central American Free Trade Agreement. "In 2006 the DCCC was Emanuel's personal weapon. He executed based on his needs. He needed votes on 'free trade' legislation that he supports, and he knew that [Cegelis] was one of the Democrats who would vote her own way," Spidel said.


    Spidel said that Emanuel worked to defeat Cegelis because she represented a threat to the established Illinois Democrats and because she did not seek their approval before running. "Chicago politics is a family. If you didn't go into the city and kiss certain rings, you were not given certain resources like Political Action Committee lists and donor lists. Cegelis' success hurt some egos and the party didn't like their lack of control," Spidel said.


    While Cegelis maintained strong volunteer support, the DCCC-backed Duckworth campaign spent close to $1 million in the primary. The race was extremely close, with Duckworth receiving 44 percent to Cegelis's 40 percent.


    "Cegelis was the reason the district was in play in the first place," Spidel said. "If a candidate was able to grow a serious grassroots campaign, especially in a district that historically favored Republicans, it seems illogical to try and challenge it from outside the district. If a Congressional district was completely off the radar before 2004 and the only reason the DCCC was looking at it as a pickup opportunity in 2006 was because of the work a grassroots candidate did, to have come in and discredited the grassroots candidate undermined the entire effort. The DCCC just threw their money away."


    Duckworth was beaten in the general election by a right-wing Republican, former State Senator Peter Roskam. One of Roskam's main criticisms of Duckworth was the fact that her home was not located in the district. Roskam won with 51 percent of the vote to Duckworth's 49 percent.


    Florida's 13th District: Jan Schneider vs. Christine Jennings


    Dr. Jan Schneider, a graduate of Yale Law School and a Ph.D in political science, ran as the Democratic challenger in Florida's 13th Congressional District against Republican Katherine Harris in 2004. In 2004, Schneider was the most competitive Democratic challenger in Florida, garnering 45 percent of the vote against Harris, but Harris won.


    Harris vacated the seat in 2006 in order to run for the Senate. Harris' departure was an opportunity for Schneider and her locally mobilized campaign to win a seat for the Democratic Party.


    Schneider was an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq and made the war a central issue in her campaigns. Schneider said recently that she "supports the withdrawal of United States troops from Iraq to begin within the next 120 days," a plan approved by the United States House of Representatives in July of this year.


    Schneider faced a primary challenge in 2006 from Christine Jennings, a former Republican banker and businesswoman. According to a candidate information page hosted by The Sarasota Herald Tribune, "Jennings doesn't have a specific direction for conducting the war and says she needs more information." Regarding the withdrawal legislation passed by the House in July 2007, Jennings said that she was "not sure whether she would have voted for it." According to Congressional Quarterly, "many Democratic officials thought Jennings's business background would make her a more viable general election contender."


    Schneider defeated Jennings by nine percentage points in the 2004 primary.


    Schneider became concerned about possible interference from the DCCC during the 2006 primary because, according to Schneider, Jennings had a very wealthy Democratic contributor on her side. Frank Brunckhorst III, a well-known donor to both the Democratic Party and to powerful Democratic members of Congress from Florida, accompanied Jennings to the Democratic National Convention in 2004.


    Schneider sat down with Emanuel in 2005 to address her concern that Jennings might get preferential treatment from the DCCC during the primary. According to Schneider, Emanuel told her that the DCCC's policy was not to choose sides during primaries. On May 26, 2005, Emanuel wrote a letter to Schneider reiterating the policy of the DCCC: "You expressed concerns about the DCCC getting involved in party primaries. While our preference is to avoid having them, our policy is to remain neutral," stated the letter, signed by Emanuel.


    Schneider claims that Emanuel broke this policy during the 2006 primary race. "Emanuel caused the Schneider campaign to be removed from the DCCC website and circulated solicitations for contributions to Democratic candidates indicating that there was no [Democratic] primary in the Florida 13th," according to a memorandum Schneider prepared.


    Schneider blames the DCCC for misleading Senator John Kerry (D- Massachusetts) into thinking that Jennings was running in the primary without any competition from within the party. Kerry gave a $1,000 donation to the Jennings campaign, which was publicized by Jennings as an endorsement. When Schneider confronted Kerry about this donation, Kerry apologized and said that he donated based on assertions by Emanuel that the race was "a targeted race with no primary," and that he never meant to interfere with an intra-party contest, according to Schneider. Congresswoman Shelly Berkley (D- Nevada) says that the DCCC sent her a letter asking her to contribute to races where there was no primary. The letter listed the Florida 13th as a race with only one Democrat pursuing the party's nomination.


    Appearing on the satirical comedy central program, "The Colbert Report," in May 2006, Schneider expressed her frustration with the Democratic Party. "I'm pretty disgusted with both parties these days - the Republicans for what they stand for and the Democrats for what they don't."


    In 2006, Jennings received 62 percent of the primary vote and defeated Schneider. Jennings went on to lose to Republican Vern Buchanan by 373 votes in a district with electronic voting machines that did not produce a verifiable paper record. More than 18,000 ballots recorded no votes for either Buchanan or Jennings. An election challenge filed by Jennings is making its way through the House Administration Committee.


    Cegelis and Schneider, outspoken anti-war candidates who ran competitive campaigns in 2004 against incumbent Republicans, were challenged and defeated from within their own party in 2006. Both races ultimately ended in extremely close losses for the Democratic Party.


    California's 11th District: Jerry McNerney vs. Steve Filson


    One grassroots campaign that made withdrawal from Iraq a central issue was able to defeat a DCCC-backed candidate despite direct interference during the intra-party primary.


    Democrat Jerry McNerney, an engineer and wind energy expert, had previously challenged incumbent Republican Richard Pombo in 2004. With a late start and little organization, McNerney's 2004 campaign only received 39 percent of the vote in a district that voted 45 percent for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. McNerney's effort put the 11th District back into play, and his campaign was revamped in order to mount a serious challenge to Pombo in 2006.


    McNerney was a strong critic of the occupation of Iraq and publicly supported Congressman John Murtha's "redeployment" plan for US combat troops serving in Iraq. According to A. J. Carrillo, campaign manager for McNerney, this position on the war made McNerney seem like a fringe candidate to Democratic leaders in Washington. "In the fall of 2005, candidates who were in favor of enforcing a timetable for withdrawal were considered 'liberals' who couldn't win in districts that trended Republican," Carrillo said.


    In a move that seems to run contrary to Emanuel's stated policy that the DCCC was to "remain neutral" in primary contests, McNerney's primary opponent, Navy veteran and former Republican Steve Filson was, according to Carrillo, endorsed in the primary by the DCCC. In contrast to McNerney, Filson did not campaign in support of a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.


    According to Carrillo, Filson was on Emanuel's short list of top-tier candidates, a designation that helped steer early campaign donations to the Filson campaign. "Party insiders were calling and asking that McNerney drop out and let Filson take on Pombo," Carrillo said. According to Carrillo, when McNerney refused to step aside, the DCCC went to work on behalf of his primary opponent.


    Carrillo saw DCCC press secretary Sarah Feinberg assisting the Filson campaign at a debate between the two candidates during the primary. Carrillo claims that he received word from a Congressional source that the DCCC was advising Filson's campaign on messaging and strategy. Carrillo's source leaked the information from the DCCC to the McNerney campaign.


    Apparently the DCCC ordered a company that prints and distributes campaign mailings to targeted voters not to work with the McNerney campaign. According to Carrillo, he had spoken to the company and faxed them a contract, when a representative from the company called him and said that there was "a minor issue with the DCCC but it shouldn't be a problem." The next morning a company representative called back and said the company could not do business with the McNerney campaign. "The company said that they got an ultimatum from the DCCC. They did a lot of business with the DCCC, so it wasn't worth risking it all just for our campaign. We had to scramble to find another company," Carrillo said.


    Despite the primary interference, McNerney did not get discouraged. "Jerry was not bitter or angry about the experience," Carrillo said, adding, "he just went out and decided to prove them all wrong. He really is Mr. Smith goes to Washington."


    The campaign received a boost from an old-school Republican, former Congressman and veteran Pete McCloskey, who came out of retirement to challenge incumbent Congressman Pombo in the Republican primary. Pombo beat McCloskey, but the fight left Pombo damaged. McCloskey, one of the authors of the Endangered Species Act, attacked Pombo for his assault on environmental protection regulations and his association with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. After losing the primary, McCloskey supported the McNerney campaign. McNerney ended up winning the seat with slightly more than 53 percent of the vote.


    Florida's 16th District: David Lutrin vs. Tim Mahoney


    Wealthy businessman Tim Mahoney, a self-described "fundamental Christian," was recruited by the DCCC to run against then-Congressman Mark Foley in Florida's 16th District. According to The Palm Beach Post, Mahoney switched his registration from Republican to Democrat in July of 2005. Mahoney did not support a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.


    David Lutrin, a school teacher, union activist and staunch supporter of immediate withdrawal from Iraq, decided to run against Foley before Mahoney entered the race. After Mahoney declared his candidacy, Lutrin was contacted by field organizers for the DCCC who asked him to drop out and let Mahoney run unopposed.


    Lutrin said that he also met personally with Mahoney. During a three- hour breakfast meeting, Mahoney offered Lutrin a higher-paying job if he agreed to drop out of the primary. "Mahoney tried to get me to run in a different district. He offered me a job at one of his non-profit organizations where he said that I would make more than I was making as a teacher. He said I could campaign full time while working at his non-profit as long as I agreed to drop out of the race," Lutrin said. Lutrin declined the job offer.


    According to Lutrin, when he refused to step aside, the DCCC shored up local political support for Mahoney. The local AFL-CIO chapter, of which Lutrin was a member, came out with an early endorsement of Mahoney's campaign. According to Lutrin, the union told him that "they would like to back a fellow union brother, but Mahoney has more money and more political support from the party." Lutrin eventually dropped out of the race when the local teachers' union decided to support Mahoney.


    Before it was revealed that then-incumbent Mark Foley had engaged in sexually explicit conversations with a teenage Congressional page, Florida's 16th district had been considered a safe seat for Republicans.


    It has been reported that the DCCC knew that Foley was engaging in inappropriate communications with Congressional pages before the story made headlines. According to CNN, a Democratic House staff member sent copies of suggestive email correspondence between Foley and an teenage Congressional page to the DCCC communication director, Bill Burton, in the fall of 2005. Burton later said that he had informed Emanuel of the emails when he received them.


    On October 8, 2006, Emanuel joined Republican Congressman Adam Putnam (R-Florida) on ABC's "This Week," hosted by George Stephanopoulos to discuss Foley's conduct. Emanuel dodged multiple questions about when he became aware of the misconduct by Foley. Democrats were decrying the lack of action taken by then-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert on the issue.


    The exact date that the DCCC became aware of the Foley emails that resulted in his losing the election and the exact date that the DCCC's recruitment of Tim Mahoney to switch parties and run as a Democrat against Foley are not yet known at the time of this writing.


    Mahoney won the seat in 2006 and joined The Blue Dog Coalition.


    The New Democratic Majority


    While Emanuel is given credit for turning power over to the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives, the majority is fractured.


    Many of the candidates that Emanuel helped elect have joined with a group of self-styled conservative Blue Dog Democrats and have cast key votes with Republicans and stymied Democratic efforts to end the occupation of Iraq and the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program.


    Thirteen of the Democratic members of the House elected in 2006 joined The Blue Dog Coalition; a group that, according to its spokesperson, has no official stance on withdrawal from Iraq or the president's warrantless wiretapping program. However, 30 out of 47 of the Blue Dog members broke with the majority of Democrats and cast votes in favor of the recent Protect America Act, a bill that greatly expanded the power of the executive branch to spy on Americans. The caucus also broke with the majority of Democrats when 40 of the Blue Dog members voted to continue funding the occupation of Iraq without a timetable for withdrawal.


    In an interview shortly after his election, freshman Blue Dog member Tim Mahoney told the Charlotte Sun, a local paper from his district, that he attended a meeting with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and told her "The president should be free to maintain troops in Iraq, if the purpose is to thwart terrorism."




    This story is based on a month-long investigation by Truthout into the practices of the DCCC and scores of interviews with Congressional spokespeople, political activists and former candidates for office.