By Chris Cillizza and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 29, 2006
MORGANTOWN, W.Va., Sept. 28 -- Nine college-age guys stood silently Thursday morning across the street from Rep. Alan B. Mollohan's (W.Va.) office, holding signs that read "Be My Cellmate" and "Man of Steal."
They were trying to bring attention to allegations that the Democratic incumbent used his congressional power to get rich and reward friends. But few people were listening. "We just want some answers," says Tommy Phillips, 25, who helped organize the rather flaccid protest.
There is only one way for Republicans to win in this Democratic district: convince voters that Mollohan is a crook. The lunchtime protest is the least sophisticated part of a destroy-the-Democrat strategy that includes operatives in Washington, a rich home builder in Texas, conservative activists in this college town and challenger Chris Wakim himself.
The target is the 12-term representative's complicated financial dealings. Mollohan, a member of the Appropriations Committee, set up several nonprofit groups over the past decade or so to administer millions of dollars he was steering to his rural district. The money benefited friends and big donors.
In a four-year period starting in 2000, Mollohan's net worth ballooned from about $500,000 to more than $6 million. The chief reason for his newfound wealth was real estate investments with one of those friends who benefited from his work in Congress. Mollohan has denied any wrongdoing, saying he was simply helping his district by maximizing its share of federal money.
That is a point that resonates with many voters here. But as the controversy reached a boil this spring, Mollohan was forced to step down from the House ethics committee. He also admitted he misstated some of his financial dealings in public records.
"He was clearly sacking the treasury and stuffing it in his own pockets," Wakim said of Mollohan. "I'm running on the idea that you can trust your congressman."
But scandal alone might not be enough to topple the popular incumbent. As Democrats are finding out in several key races, voters often seem more concerned about local issues than charges of ethical lapses.
Mollohan shows why. Since succeeding his father in Congress in 1982, he has faced only one tough race. That was 14 years ago, when redistricting forced a primary showdown with a fellow Democrat. Mollohan won that race with 61 percent and has coasted through elections ever since.
When news of the Mollohan scandal broke on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, many thought the incumbent was in trouble. But Democratic opposition researchers discovered that Wakim had lied about his résumé. Wakim acknowledged some padding but called the furor an attempt to distract voters.
There has been no public polling in the race. Republicans admit that Wakim's résumé inflation hampered his attempts to cast the race as a referendum on the incumbent's ethical lapses. But they still think Mollohan can be beaten -- if enough attention is paid, via TV ads, to his finances.
A big part of this effort rests on the shoulders of Texas builder Bob Perry, who has invested $5 million in a group calling itself the Economic Freedom Fund. With Wakim at a clear fundraising disadvantage in the race, Perry is blanketing the 1st District with ads attacking Mollohan's ethics. The group is also sending direct mail and calling voters.
Wakim is running ads of his own that allege Mollohan has "been too busy helping himself and his friends to do the job for us."
Mollohan has not sat on his hands either. He has been unloading on Wakim on television over the past month while touting his own ability to deliver for West Virginia -- a potentially powerful message in a state so dependent on federal largess.
Of his critics, Mollohan said, "They are trying to make all this good look bad."
Washingtonpost.com videographer Chet Rhodes contributed to this report.