For better or worse, Coleen Rowley the candidate for Congress sounds a lot like Coleen Rowley the FBI whistleblower.
The former FBI agent who scathingly exposed the bureau's failure to uncover the Sept. 11 plot is running for a House seat in Minnesota in 2006 as a Democrat, and she is employing her fearlessly blunt style on the campaign trail.
"This was a lied-into war that is a quagmire now," the 50-year-old Rowley recently told a group of rural Democrats in a garage in this small town south of the Twin Cities. ` ongoing deception."
Whether that kind of talk is smart politics is another matter.
The Democrats nationally are struggling with how to oppose the war without looking weak on national security, and some of them see Rowley's head-on attacks — as well as her trip to Texas in August to lend support to Cindy Sheehan's anti-war protest at President Bush's ranch — as especially risky in the Republican-leaning 2nd Congressional District.
"If you become known as a single-issue candidate against the war in a conservative district, I don't see how that gets you many votes," said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Northfield's Carleton College, in the 2nd District. "So far it seems like some of the moves she's made are counterproductive."
One Democratic state legislator in the district, Rep. Joe Atkins, said he gets calls every week urging him to run against Rowley for the party's nomination, but he said he has not given it serious thought.
"The key issues in our area are education, education and education," Atkins said. "I would hope and expect any congressional candidate would come to focus on those issues — focus on the things your constituents are concerned about."
It is a bind for Rowley as a candidate, since it was her candor that brought her to national attention in the first place.
As the legal counsel in the FBI's Minneapolis office in 2001, she helped agents investigating Zacarias Moussaoui, who was arrested in Minnesota before Sept. 11 after he raised suspicions at a flight school.
Minneapolis agents felt that FBI bureaucrats in Washington impeded the investigation, prompting Rowley a few months later to write a blistering memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller.
In a second letter to Mueller a few months later, Rowley criticized the intelligence cited by the Bush administration in its decision to invade Iraq. Many of her colleagues were displeased, and Rowley was forced out as legal counsel a few months before she officially retired.
Her opponent in the House race is GOP Rep. John Kline, a former Marine officer who served as a military aide to Presidents Carter and Reagan and, for a time, was responsible for carrying the nuclear "football," the satchel containing the missile launch codes. He has been an outspoken supporter of the Iraq war and the administration's foreign policy.
Kline's camp has had little to say about Rowley so far. "We are not in campaign mode yet," said spokeswoman Angelyn Shapiro.
In the most recent fund-raising period, Rowley raised just $80,000 to Kline's $230,000. On the stump, Rowley sometimes strays off topic and takes her listeners on long detours, and her campaign so far has something of a homemade feel, as she lugs hand-printed yard signs to campaign events.
"We're still early here, but I think among Democrats it's fair to say they're disappointed that the campaign hasn't created more momentum," said Blois Olson, a Democratic consultant and co-publisher of the newsletter Politics in Minnesota. "I think there's some naivete about the process."