Moseley-Braun in Trouble
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 1, 1998; Page A16
CHICAGO Six years ago she was the most celebrated victor in the "Year of the Woman." Today Carol Moseley-Braun is widely regarded as the Democratic senator most likely to be drummed out of office this November.
With five weeks left before the general elections, Moseley-Braun is trailing her Republican rival, state senator Peter Fitzgerald, by 10 percentage points, according to a Chicago Tribune poll released this week. The survey shows that Fitzgerald has opened up the lead largely because voters believe that he is more honest and trustworthy than the incumbent.
It is a dramatic turn for the glib and charismatic Moseley-Braun, whose upset victory in 1992 made her the first black woman elected to the Senate and transformed her into a stirring national symbol of women's political empowerment. But soon after voters sent her to Capitol Hill, the euphoria began to subside, and allegations of misconduct began to surface.
First there were allegations that she tried to divide a $28,000 inheritance from her mother without using any of the money to defray the Medicaid costs of her nursing home care. Elected as a reformer and an advocate for women, she was also accused of ignoring allegations of sexual harassment against her campaign manager and one-time fiance, Kgosie Matthews.
The Federal Election Commission audited her election spending to determine whether she misused campaign money, and she was roundly criticized by African Americans, human rights activists and others for making at least seven trips to Nigeria while it was under the rule of dictator Sani Abachi.
More recently, Moseley-Braun has had to publicly distance herself from Matthews, who is being sued by a Chicago travel agency for bilking the company out of plane tickets.
No criminal wrongdoing by Moseley-Braun has ever been proven in any of the incidents, and the senator said wearily in an interview earlier this year: "No U.S. senator has been investigated more than me."
But unproven or not, the allegations have stuck, and voters' negative impressions of the senator have transformed the symbol into a target of the national GOP. Mike Russell, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the party believes that it can pick up one to three Senate seats next month, and Moseley-Braun's tops the list.
"We've always known that Moseley-Braun was vulnerable," Russell said. "We knew that she would have a tough time with any [GOP] candidate. Basically, she's her own worst enemy."
Fitzgerald was conspicuously silent when Moseley-Braun made what may have been the critical gaffe of the campaign three weeks ago.
Responding to criticism from columnist George Will, Moseley-Braun used the word "nigger" to portray herself as a victim of racism and compared Will to a Klansman. She quickly apologized, but her favorability ratings have dropped even further since then, particularly among the suburban women who were key to electing her.
"There's no doubt that these lingering negatives have had an impact," said Eric Adelstein, Moseley-Braun's political consultant. "I think the senator would readily admit that she hasn't talked enough about her record to counteract those negatives."
Moseley-Braun's television ads to date have largely focused on what she says she has accomplished since coming to Washington.
She has authored legislation to provide federal funds to repair crumbling public schools, and has been a forceful advocate of efforts to expand pension benefits to women, extend credit to farmers and clean up polluted industrial sites. Shortly after her election, she impressed liberal and African American constituents by forcing the Senate to drop a proposal by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to renew the patent on the United Daughters of the Confederacy's flag insignia.
But Fitzgerald's campaign has focused heavily on Moseley-Braun's ethics problems. Fitzgerald has repeatedly told audiences that it is time for Illinois to rid itself of a senator who has "been to Nigeria more than she's been to Rockford [Illinois]." An oft-repeated campaign line is "Fitzgerald; a senator we can be proud of."
"The problem is that she's never been able to put a lot of this stuff behind her," said John McGovern, press secretary for the Illinois Republican Party. "And unlike [President] Clinton, where you can argue that his ethical lapses are his own personal peccadilloes, Moseley-Braun's problems touch more closely to official misconduct."
Blacks continue to be among Moseley-Braun's most avid supporters. But it's unclear whethers her campaign can energize African Americans to vote, or, just as importantly, whether she can count on the white suburban women who played such a critical role in her 1992 victory.
"Ninety percent of the blacks who go to the polls will vote for Moseley-Braun," said Robert Starks, a political science professor for the Center for Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. "But can she get out the vote in the black community, and will the soccer moms stick with her? That is a big part of the "She has been a great disappointment, but I have a hard time mustering up enthusiasm for either of the candidates."
‚Valerie Litchfield, Illinois voter
coalition that won it for her last time out."
After capturing more than half of all votes cast by women voters in Illinois in 1992, the Tribune pollshowed that female voters prefer Fitzgerald over Moseley-Braun 46 percent to 39 percent. Among women in Chicago's suburbs, she trailed Fitzgerald by almost 2 to 1, according to the survey.
Valerie Litchfield, a mother of three and homemaker in suburban Flossmoor, is typical. "She has been a great disappointment," she said, "but I have a hard time mustering up enthusiasm for either of the candidates."
Moseley-Braun's relationship with Matthews, her handling of her mother's inheritance, her junkets to Africa and her comparison of Will to a Ku Klux Klan member are troubling to Litchfield, though she concedes that she wants to know more about Fitzgerald's stance on abortion before making a decision on who to vote for.
Money may be a critical factor in the race, and there Fitzgerald has a clear edge. National Republican officials have made the Illinois Senate race a fund-raising priority and high-profile Republicans such as Robert J. Dole and Jack Kemp have made appearances in Illinois on Fitzgerald's behalf.
Moreover, Fitzgerald, the scion of a wealthy family that made a fortune in banking, has deep pockets. He spent $7 million of his estimated $40 million fortune to upset the GOP's handpicked and more moderate candidate in the March primary. In July, Fitzgerald raised twice as much money from political action committees as Moseley-Braun. As the campaign goes into the home stretch, Moseley-Braun has spent all but $500,000 of her $4.5 million in campaign funds.
"Anytime you're worth $40 million and you're willing to buy a congressional seat, you're going to be in the game," said Adelstein.
But hardly anyone here is willing to count Moseley-Braun out. She is an electric campaigner, and her megawatt charisma draws comparisons with another Chicagoan: Oprah Winfrey. She will also try hard to portray Fitzgerald as an extremist whose views are out of step with mainstream voters.
And the 37-year-old millionaire is still relatively unknown, running what many here have described as a "stealth campaign," doing little to publicize his own conservative pro-gun and antiabortion views.
Moseley-Braun's poor position may be to some degree the result of the high and perhaps unreasonable expectations that surrounded her election six years ago, said Scott Althaus, a political science and speech communications professor at the University of Illinois. Unable to meet that standard, she has left voters disillusioned.
"Quite frankly," he said, "she probably would've had a tough time being reelected no matter who the Republicans ran against her."
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