In Calif., Charlie Brown Could Have the Last Laugh
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
ROSEVILLE, Calif. -- Charlie Brown for Congress? At first it sounded like a joke.
Brown was an unknown Democrat running in the California Republican heartland. The eight-term incumbent, John Doolittle (R), had crushed his 2004 opponent. Fewer than a third of district voters are registered Democrats. When Brown jumped in a year ago, the Peanuts references were irresistible.
"Good Grief! Charlie Brown Takes on Doolittle," proclaimed one political blog.
There are two types of candidates: the obvious ones, who are recruited to run in key races and get lots of financial and organizational help, and the bootstrap cases, who do it all on their own. Usually these second-tier candidates run and lose in obscurity. But sometimes they get lucky. If a wave breaks next month, Brown is one of many bootstrap Democrats who could be washed into Congress.
The latest polls show that Brown, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, has pulled within striking distance of Doolittle, whose well-documented ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff may be an albatross. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is increasingly optimistic about Brown's chances and has chipped in an undisclosed amount of cash for the final push. Brown has scooped up local newspaper endorsements and raised $750,000, much of it in recent weeks.
The one person who isn't surprised by this turn of events is Brown, who ignored all the naysayers and trusted his gut that Doolittle could be beaten. The latest news to break his way: Doolittle's campaign reported more than $38,000 in legal fees in his third-quarter fundraising report that are related to a federal investigation into Abramoff's lobbying activities. A Doolittle spokeswoman said the congressman was attempting to be helpful and had not been contacted by prosecutors, but the disclosure put Doolittle on the defensive with weeks to go.
"It all comes down to someone who lives in the district, and knows it," Brown said of his success. He's not surprised the national party kept its distance all those months. "We've had to show them in Washington that it was worth getting involved. When I got started, there was nothing here to support."
The 4th District is made up of 48 percent Republicans and 30 percent Democrats, with the balance GOP-leaning independents. The geography also is daunting. The district contains 17,000 square miles, from the Sacramento suburbs to the Oregon and Nevada state lines.
But it's a more nuanced landscape than it seems, Brown says.
Bay Area residents are moving east in search of cheaper housing, and although they are not heavily Democratic, many are registering as independents. The Sacramento area was one of the few pockets in the state to vote for a 2005 measure to end partisan redistricting. Doolittle called the initiative politically "stupid."
In June, Doolittle won the GOP primary with 67 percent of the vote, an indication that his base had diminished. The California 4th is home to 102,000 veterans. Brown was raised in a military household and has a son serving in Iraq. He coordinated Air Force surveillance flights over Iraq during the 1990s and opposed the Iraq war from the outset. As conditions in Iraq worsen, he has found local veterans increasingly responsive to his call for setting a timetable for withdrawal.
Running in a political no man's land requires building a campaign operation from scratch. Brown lined up precinct captains and courted local unions and other left-leaning organizations. He traveled to every populated cranny of the district, either alone or with his wife, Jan, a retired Air Force nurse.
Like most candidates, Brown has entered a sort of parallel universe, wired but road weary, a regular at a taqueria next door to headquarters. His campaign has grown bigger and more frenetic, part small business and part family.
One fixture is Joanne Neft, founder of Republicans for Charlie Brown, who canvasses in silver elephant earrings. Another is Don Harper, who runs Veterans for Brown.
Despite all the excitement, the party mantra remained unchanged: "Show me the polls." Brown commissioned a survey last month that showed Doolittle ahead, 41 percent to 39 percent, and 17 percent undecided. Shortly afterward, Brown was endorsed by the Sacramento Bee under the headline "Time for Doolittle to go."
On Oct. 11, the candidates met for a combative two-hour debate. "Nothing like it has ever been seen in Placer County," the San Francisco Chronicle observed.
Doolittle called Brown a "flimflam man." He cited Brown's membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, which Doolittle accused of defending the North American Man/Boy Love Association, which he said "is helping pedophiles get away with their dastardly deeds."
Brown lambasted Doolittle for his relationship with Abramoff and a San Diego businessman implicated in the bribery case that sent former representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.) to prison. Brown noted that his opponent had accepted a $1,000 donation from Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who resigned from Congress last month in a scandal involving male teenage congressional pages. "Mr. Doolittle knows more about man's love than I do, with his support of Congressman Foley," Brown retorted.
They say timing is everything in politics, but part of that is knowing when an incumbent's time may be up. "There's a whole lot of people who are going to win this year, simply because they showed up," said Amy Walter, who tracks House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "People who are willing to take the biggest risks often get the biggest rewards."