08 November, 2006

Hall-Kelly Race A Local Example Of A Nationwide Trend

The 'Contract With America' has been officially cancelled.

Broken long ago by the politicians who proposed it, American voters Tuesday night officially affixed a 'null and void' stamp on the much ballyhooed set of principles by which those brought to power in the Republican Revolution of 1994 pledged to govern.

By taking back 29 seats (for now) in the House, what looks like six in the Senate and flipping six governor's seats, the Democrats in 2006 had the kind of watershed night that the Republicans enjoyed in November 1994, the night the GOP coup, led by Newt Gingrich, was sprung.

If you want a good laugh, or a good cry, look back at the principles outlined in the 'contract' that swept the GOP into 12 years of political dominance and then juxtapose those principles with the signatories to the document, and those who rode in on the political wave it spawned.

The Contract With America, in its preamble, calls for "an end of government that is too big, too intrusive." But it was the document's caretakers who talk about a constitutional ban on gay marriage and who turned the private grief and consternation of Terry Schaivo's family into a public circus.

In the document, the Republicans also pledge to "restore accountability to Congress. To end its cycle of scandal and disgrace." A reaction to the House banking and postage scandals perpetrated by a Democratic-led House.

The words were written by Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay among others. Randy "Duke" Cunningham was among those who signed on. Bob Ney and Mark Foley were among the 54 freshman Republicans who won their seats on the basis of those promises.

Gingrich, who became Speaker of the House as a result of the 1994 elections, was forced to resign the post and leave the House four years later, having had a slew of ethics charges filed against him as he was leading the impeachment charge against then-President Bill Clinton for his sexual indiscretions.

Tom DeLay, Gingrich's House Whip, and the eventual Speaker of the House himself, resigned this year amid the K-street lobbying scandal and an indictment for allegedly violating Texas campaign finance laws.

Cunningham, a member of the 1995 GOP freshman class, is currently serving an eight-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to bribery and tax evasion and Ney, also a freshman in that class, resigned from his Ohio congressional seat in August after being connected to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Another first-time winner in 1994, Mark Foley of Florida, resigned in late September after revelations that he had sent sexually explicit online messages to teenage House pages, and may have provided the last bit of impetus for voters to reject the Republicans Tuesday.

While some will argue that the war in Iraq led to the Republicans' downfall Tuesday night - and there’s no doubt it contributed mightily- the GOP was ultimately brought down by its own scandal-plagued reign.

Exit polling by CNN showed that many issues - terrorism, the war, the economy and immigration - played a big role in voter decision-making. But corruption was No. 1 on the list. Clearly Americans finally realized the contract they approved 12 years ago came without a warranty and they felt free, finally, to opt out.

New York and Indiana Democrats made the strongest contributions to their party's counter-revolution of '06, having each 'flipped' three seats in the House, and with New York throwing in a governor's seat for good measure.

What is most striking about that is the disparate nature of the two states, which, nonetheless became the two main battlegrounds in what was clearly a nationwide political war. Politically, prior to Tuesday night, Indiana was as "red" as New York was "blue." Yet Democrats were able to carve out new ground in both places.

Two races in New York in particular, in the eastern part of the state, are good examples of what was happening all over the country on election night. One race featured a scandal-tinged Republican incumbent and the other a do-little incumbent with a reputation as a rubber-stump lackey for the Bush agenda.

Both were defeated by Democratic newcomers with new ideas, an optimistic air and a fresh face.

That 'fresh face' belongs to Kirsten Gillibrand in New York's 20th District, which cuts a narrow but lengthy patch along the state's eastern border from the upper Hudson Valley nearly to Canada.

Gillibrand posted a surprisingly strong six-point victory over 10-year Republican incumbent John Sweeney, who had been plagued by scandals involving tax-payer paid congressional staff junkets to Lake Placid, a trip to a Pacific island - possibly paid for by a lobbyist associated with Jack Abramoff, and late-breaking news about a 9-1-1 domestic violence call allegedly placed by Sweeney's wife last December. Sweeney denied assaulting his wife but failed in the campaign's waning days to provide the proof he said he had to back his denials.

In the state's 19th District, which encompasses New York City's outermost exurbs in parts of five counties, the Democrats' fresh face is John Hall, previously know primarily for his days in the 1970's pop music band 'Orleans' and his battle with the 2004 Bush re-election committee over the unauthorized use of the group's biggest hit, 'Still the One,' as the president's campaign theme song.

Hall emerged from a primary field that grew to as large as six candidates by calling for America's withdrawal from Iraq early on, and emphasizing his thirty-year history of advocacy for the environment.

With some help from a grass roots organization formed last winter for the sole purpose of defeating incumbent Republican Sue Kelly, Hall parlayed his progressive agenda, deft use of the Internet as a campaign tool, his celebrity and music-industry connections and strong grass-roots backing to eke out a 2-point win over Kelly on Election Day.

Hall's win over Kelly was among the most significant of the seats regained by the Democrats this year, simply because he was given little chance of winning, even by his own party.

During the primaries he was seen by many in the party as too liberal to win the district.

None of the national political pundits, partisan or otherwise, had the race on their radar screens until the end of the campaign.

Even the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee paid Hall little mind until mid-October when - based on polling - the DCCC put Hall's bid on its 'Emerging Races' list. Which meant the national party was taking a show-me attitude toward Hall.

Within two weeks, and only about 10 days out from election, the DCCC upgraded the race to its "Red-to-Blue" list, meaning Hall had arrived as a potential victor in the minds of national party leaders. With that recognition came some extra campaign dollars and campaign appearances by former President Clinton, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Eliot Spitzer - the party's Golden Boy candidate for governor.

While Hall was finally feeling some love from his own party, Kelly was exhibiting the very behavior that Hall's campaign was hoping to exploit in painting her as an underachieving tool of the Bush administration and the Republican leaders in Congress.

Kelly repeatedly refused to publicly debate Hall, making it easy for the challenger to make the case that after 12 years - Kelly too was a freshman in that famous class of '95 - she had no record to run on.

Kelly also ducked the media, making only pre-scripted, photo-op campaign appearances and - infamously, thanks to You Tube - literally running away from the cameras of a local cable television network in an effort to duck questions from one of the network's reporters.

Kelly rode in with the tidal wave of 1994, rode the crest for 12 years, and was carried back out to sea by the receding Republican waters, made murky and scummy by years of scandal involving her GOP bretheren.

In an election night interview, already looking comfortable in his new "congressman" skin, Hall said, in his mind, Kelly was sent packing because of her allegiance to the party and to the special interests that funded her $2.5 million campaign.

"Everywhere I went during this campaign," Hall said, "the number one thing people would say to me is that we have to separate the influence of money from the political process. I was able to raise about $1.5 million, and about 80% of that was from individual contributions. So it can be done."

The congressman-elect says his opponent, and the other Republicans shown the door Tuesday night, let down those who put them in office.

"The Contract With America class of 1994 is on its way out because they didn't live up to it," said Hall. "In particular they didn't live up to the promise to end the culture of corruption in Washington, and they didn’t live up to their pledge of (self-imposed, 12-year) term limits."

Hall says the GOP experience of Tuesday night is not lost on him.

"I'm going to try to stay true to the principals I ran on," he said. " I had lots of volunteers with the same vision and they will hold my feet to the fire. Sometimes you need your friends to remind you in case you start to fall into the incumbent trap."

Lesson learned in the Hudson Valley, and, hopefully, across the country.


At 8:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Weren't some of Hall's principles Impeachment of Bush & Cheney, government run healthcare system, and amnesty for illegals? Let's see how fast he runs away from those pillars of his platform.


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