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Politicians' money woes strike a chord with voters

Candidates who've faced bankruptcy or foreclosure are finding that many people sympathize with their problems. And their opponents refrain from attacking on the financial front.

September 26, 2010|By Richard Fausset

Reporting from Marietta, Ga. — Georgia voter Bobbie Huff has heard about the failed business venture and the big loan that has Nathan Deal, this state's gubernatorial front-runner, on the hook for more than $2 million.

She's also heard that Deal, an 18-year veteran of Congress, will likely have to sell his house and liquidate other assets to cover the debt.

But Huff can't bring herself to render a stern judgment on the man just because he's suffered in the recession. After all, she said, who hasn't?

"It just shows that everybody's in the same boat these days, whether you're a political person or an everyday person," the 59-year old said last week in the old town square of this conservative Atlanta suburb. "I think on the whole he's a good man who got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time."

In contrast to several high-profile and well-heeled candidates in California, a number of others elsewhere around the country are facing personal financial troubles. Their money woes are more than abstractions to be addressed with policy prescriptions and high-flying rhetoric — they are personal dramas that figure into their campaign stories.

In some cases, adversaries point to these problems as examples of poor judgment and highlight perceived ethical lapses. But experts say they would be wise to tread carefully in a time of widespread pain, because voter sympathy may weigh into election day decisions.

Foreclosure and real-estate troubles have trailed Christine O'Donnell and Marco Rubio, the Republican Senate nominees from Delaware and Florida; as well as U.S. Rep. Laura Richardson, a Democrat from Long Beach. In Illinois, the Democrat running to fill President Obama's U.S. Senate Seat, Alexi Giannoulias, saw his family bank fail in April.

Financial hardships have hit small-scale races as well: This summer, three of seven candidates vying for city council seats in Miami Gardens, Fla., were dealing with a foreclosure or bankruptcy.

"For the most part, the residents understood," said Felicia Robinson, who won her seat despite having lost an investment property to foreclosure. "Because a lot of them are in the same situation — or in worse situations."

Angelo Fuster, a veteran political advisor in Atlanta, reiterated the point, saying it could be unwise to attack such candidates. "Hundreds of thousands of voters are in the same situation, and you're sort of impugning their judgment and their smarts by doing that," he said.

Criticizing an opponent's financial failings has long been fair game in politics. But the compassion of the electorate also has some historical precedent, particularly during hard times. During the financial panic of 1893, William McKinley, then governor of Ohio, cosigned a large loan to help a friend with business that eventually failed.

When the public learned of it, McKinley feared his political career was over. Instead, according to historian H. Wayne Morgan, Americans reacted with "a wave of sympathetic understanding," sending in nickels and dollars to cover the debt. Three years later, McKinley was elected president.

In this midterm cycle, some candidates with money troubles have sought to turn their situation into an advantage.

"I think the fact that I have struggled financially is what makes me so sympathetic," O'Donnell said in March to the Wilmington News Journal, which reported that she faced an IRS lien for unpaid taxes and had sold her home to a staffer to avoid a sheriff's sale.

Deal's financial problems first came to light on Sept. 15 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and quickly became the focal point of the state's campaign coverage and chatter.

The candidate said he cosigned $2 million-plus in loans to help his daughter and son-in-law start an outdoor retail shop that eventually fell victim to the weak economy — a sign of his family values, he argued, not of profligacy.

"This was an investment that was made on behalf of a child, and I think when you try to help your children that's probably always the right thing to do," he said in a conference call with reporters.

His predicament, he said, was "an illustration of the fact that you need a governor who understands the pain that Georgians are facing."

Since the revelations, a Rasmussen poll showed Deal, a Republican, with a slight lead over his opponent, former Gov. Roy Barnes.

Some political consultants have figured the potential sympathy factor into campaign strategy.

In Florida this year, West Palm Beach political consultant Rick Asnani and his firm, Cornerstone Solutions, was working for Pete Brandenburg, a Florida state house candidate, when they learned that Brandenburg's opponent was having financial problems typical of many Floridians. The opponent, Jeff Clemens, said in an interview that he missed two house payments in 2009.

Four or five years ago, Asnani said, he would have told his team to go on the attack. This year, they backed off.

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