- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006


National Democrats failed three times to recruit experienced elected officials to run against the Ohio Republican at the center of a lobbying scandal. Now, they are left with lesser-known contenders running against one of their top political targets in a race they have been touting for months.

Three men with more experience in countywide elected office and greater name recognition than the Democrats who are running turned down offers by the party’s national House campaign organization last year to challenge Republican Rep. Bob Ney.

Mr. Ney is a top target for Democrats in elections this year because of his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff. When Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud charges in January, he told federal prosecutors that Mr. Ney took thousands of dollars in gifts, travel and campaign donations from him and associates in exchange for official acts.

“From [Ohio Gov.] Bob Taft to Bob Ney, Ohio is ground zero for voters who want real change from the status quo and the ethical scandals in government,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Democrat and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Mr. Taft pleaded no contest to ethics charges last year.

The Democrats have made Mr. Ney’s race the bellwether for their attempt to erase a 231-202 Republican advantage in the House, but Mr. Ney said the fact that “the top-three-tier people didn’t run against me should tell Rahm Emanuel that the bell’s already misshaping itself.”

Mr. Ney has won at least 60 percent of the vote in all but two of his six House campaigns and ran unopposed in 2002.

One of the Democrats who turned down Mr. Emanuel’s recruiting efforts said Mr. Ney could be unbeatable, despite his troubles.

“He is well-liked in the district. He enjoys broad-based support from labor unions and business. My own personal feeling is, until he is led off the floor of Congress in handcuffs, he’ll be tough to defeat,” state Rep. John Boccieri said.

Mr. Emanuel’s committee declined to comment on recruiting issues, but is struggling to decide whether to back Chillicothe Mayor Joe Sulzer or Dover law director Zack Space.

By contrast, Mr. Ney faces little challenge from his own party. Republican House leaders forced him to give up a committee chairmanship temporarily, but the national campaign organization says it would not stop supporting the lawmaker unless he is convicted.

Tom Wiseman, a political scientist at Bowling Green State University, said the first three Democratic recruits — Mr. Boccieri, state Sen. Charlie Wilson and former state Senate Minority Leader Greg DiDonato — “are considered big hitters. They have the track record, experience and base, as opposed to the other two.”

Brian Usher, a Democratic political strategist, agrees that Mr. Sulzer and Mr. Space don’t have the same clout. Still, he said, the Democrats’ chances for success remain in Mr. Ney’s hands.

“It will be a dogfight all year, unless Ney is indicted and stays in the race. Then the Democrats have a very good shot,” Mr. Usher said.

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