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Scandals Becoming an Issue in State Races

October 16, 2005|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

Even as clouds of scandal hang over Washington, charges of political wrongdoing have surfaced in state capitals in Ohio, New Mexico, Tennessee and elsewhere across the country, touching members of both parties and elevating ethics as a campaign issue in nearly a dozen states.

Already, some say, the effect can be felt in the November race for New Jersey governor, where Democratic Sen. Jon Corzine is locked in a closer-than-expected contest with Republican businessman Doug Forrester.

Cliff Zukin, a Rutgers University political scientist, said that given President Bush's unpopularity and New Jersey's strong Democratic tilt, the tight race is "hard to understand unless you take the ethical climate of the state into account."

A poll last month by Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., found that 53% of New Jersey voters considered government corruption a very serious problem, compared with 23% in May 2001 -- before Sen. Robert Torricelli and Gov. James E. McGreevey, both Democrats, were chased from office by scandals.

But New Jersey -- and Washington -- are not the only places where charges of political malfeasance have been making headlines:

* In Alaska, two members of Republican Gov. Frank H. Murkowski's Cabinet have resigned this year amid conflict-of-interest charges.

* In Kentucky, 11 current or former members of Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher's administration have been indicted as part of an investigation into Fletcher's hiring practices. The governor has issued a blanket pardon for all involved -- excluding himself -- which antagonized many Kentucky voters.

* In Illinois, Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been tied to a teachers pension fund scandal. A criminal probe is being led by U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who also is heading the Washington investigation into the leak that unmasked CIA operative Valerie Plame.

* In New Mexico, Democratic Treasurer Robert Vigil faces federal racketeering charges in connection with kickbacks he allegedly received from a financial advisor hired to help invest state funds. Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, running for reelection next year and eyeing a 2008 run for president, is seeking to strip Vigil of his power while he awaits trial.

* In Ohio, Republican Gov. Robert A. Taft has pleaded no contest to violating state ethics laws in connection with gifts he received. He has also been battered by the so-called "Coingate" scandal involving the loss of state funds in rare coin investments made by a major GOP donor.

* In Tennessee, an FBI sting has led to bribery and conspiracy charges against five current or former state lawmakers. All but one are Democrats, including the uncle of Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., who is running for the U.S. Senate in 2006.

Government ethics has also become an issue in Maryland, Wisconsin, Connecticut -- where former Republican Gov. John G. Rowland is serving a jail term for corruption -- and Texas, where former House Republican leader Tom DeLay has been indicted for alleged campaign finance irregularities.

Political observers say the number of statehouse scandals has fostered a climate that makes the news out of Washington -- near-daily stories of grand jury appearances, questions of insider stock trading, charges of high-level cronyism -- even more resonant with voters.

"People don't distinguish between various levels of government," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic campaign strategist in Los Angeles. "For most people, this is all part of one story."

The party in power always runs the greatest risk of a voter backlash against incumbent lawmakers. In the epic throw-the-bums-out election of 1994, Republicans not only won control of Congress, but also gained 11 governorships and 472 seats in legislatures across the country.

Next year, there will be 36 gubernatorial contests and hundreds of legislative races. Republicans hold 28 of the nation's governorships, the Democrats 22.

Because Republicans control both the White House and Congress, it is Democrats who hope to capitalize on voter discontent and the scent of scandal "in hundreds and hundreds of races, from the White House to the courthouse," as Carrick put it.

Said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan political analyst in Washington: "If you're living in Kentucky and reading about Gov. Fletcher, or Ohio reading about Coingate and Gov. Taft, to the extent it supports that broad national theme, for Democrats so much the better."

However, the fact that scandal has brushed members of both parties makes it less clear whether one of them will benefit dramatically over the other.

In Tennessee, for instance, it is Democrats who have been thrown on the defensive by the ongoing FBI probe, which involved a phony recycling company that allegedly passed out bribes.

One of those indicted, former state Sen. John Ford of Memphis, has since resigned. Democrats held on to the seat -- Ford's replacement was his sister, Ophelia. But she won last month's special election by 12 votes despite the party's overwhelming registration edge.

"Voters were upset -- no question about it," said Hastings Wyman, who tracked the race for his nonpartisan newsletter, the Southern Political Report.

Carrick, whose clients include Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), cautioned fellow Democrats not to assume they would romp to victory.

"There has obviously been an enormous avalanche of bad stories, many of them revolving around ethics, having to do with the Bush administration. Clearly that hurts Republicans," Carrick said. "[But] there is the possibility that this doesn't take on as much of a partisan definition as it does the definition of the ins versus the outs."

In that case, incumbents of both parties will have to worry in 2006.

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