For nearly a quarter of a century, Rep. Alan Mollohan largely has been absent from the national stage, content with winning elections and bringing home the bacon to his northern West Virginia district.
But this year, the Democratic congressman found himself a casualty of the partisan ethics fracas on Capitol Hill. He was forced to resign his post as ranking member of the House ethics committee, threatening — at least temporarily — his party's plans to make the “culture of corruption” a major campaign issue for next month's midterm elections.
“For the first time, Alan Mollohan was bringing national attention to West Virginia, but for a very disgraceful reason,” says Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Emboldened by Mollohan’s perceived fall from grace, Republicans are running an aggressive candidate, businessman Chris Wakim, in hopes of ending a Democratic hold on this district that has lasted nearly a century.
Mollohan's troubles have been eclipsed by the more recent scandal involving Rep. Mark Foley of Florida, who resigned Sept. 29 over lurid electronic e-mails he sent to teenage House pages. Nevertheless, Mollohan, 63, was forced in April to respond to allegations that he had used his seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee to secure more than $150 million for five non-profit groups in his district, one of which was run by a former congressional aide.
Mollohan's financial disclosure statements also have come under scrutiny. His personal wealth ballooned from $550,000 from 2000 to to $6.3 million in 2004.
The allegations triggered a federal investigation, but there have been no formal charges against Mollohan, and the ethics committee has not taken any action against him. However, he stepped aside from his ethics post last spring after newspapers and colleagues suggested he make the move.
Mollohan responded to the charges in detail, saying his real estate investments grew with the market, accounting for the increase in earnings, while the funding for the non-profits coincided with a planned project to bring a multimillion-dollar high-tech corridor to Fairmont, W.Va.
He also attacked the group that sent the allegations to federal prosecutors, the National Legal and Policy Center, which has a reputation for filing complaints against Democrats.
“Any reasonable person who reviews the activities and funding of this organization will inevitably conclude that it is not a government-ethics watchdog, as it claims to be, but instead it is an ultra-conservative, politically motivated group that merely masquerades as a government-ethics watchdog,” Mollohan said in an April statement.
However, the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which is often attacked by Republicans for being too partisan, named Mollohan in September in its annual survey of most corrupt politicians on Capitol Hill.
Mollohan’s office did not reply to repeated requests for an interview for this story.
Wakim has compared Mollohan to Ohio Rep. Bob Ney, the Republican congressman who recently pleaded guilty to bribery and fraud charges stemming from his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. “Alan Mollohan has done essentially the same thing as [Ney],” Wakim says. “It’s pretty clear to me he is in trouble.”
But Democrats say it’s still going to be hard to beat the incumbent despite new vulnerabilities.
“I’m not saying that the badmouthing isn’t going to hurt him — it has — but he has weathered the storm,” said Randy Tichnell, who sits on the executive committee of the Preston County Democratic Party.
“I think the voters in Preston County are fed up with the bad mouthing, back and forth. I think you are going to see Congressman Mollohan re-elected.”
“Steel is a big part of this county, and he’s been right on trade, and on pensions and Social Security,” said John Saunders, co-chairman of the Democratic Party in Ohio County, home to industry town Wheeling. “He’s been right on the issues that are important to this part of the region.”
Democrats see Mollohan as a sort of understudy to Sen. Robert Byrd, who is famous for bringing home federal dollars to the economically beleaguered counties in the state. They say Mollohan has infused the district with money, most recently in trying to build up a high tech industry there.
“It’s his type of vision and hard work that has reaped benefits for the people he represents,” Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said in an interview.
But Republicans see an economically stagnant region, one that needs to be weaned from federal handouts and put onto a market-based regimen that will push West Virginia out of the weeds and into the 21st Century, said Doug McKinney, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party.
“All the money that Mollohan and Byrd have brought here as earmarks have not really benefited the people,” he said, noting that West Virginia was far behind the rest of the country “in almost every economic marker.”
Donald Smith, chairman of the Preston County Republican Party, said Wakim “got Mollohan running scared. This is the first time in my lifetime where anyone has put up a fight against Mollohan.”
Mollohan was elected in 1982, filling the post left by his father, Rep. Robert Mollohan, who retired after representing the district since the mid-1960s.
The Democrat-heavy district — where there are three Democrats for every two Republicans — is marked by coal and steel towns like Wheeling, as well as the college and tourist hub of Morgantown and a string of Republican-leaning mountain communities.
Republicans like to argue that, despite the district's Democratic loyalties, it is conservative and probably agrees more with the GOP on most social issues. President Bush won the district 58 percent to 42 percent over John Kerry in 2004
Now Wakim hopes to break Mollohan’s winning streak. “I’m not sure he’s going to be so fortunate this time,” he says.
“Frankly, my campaign has been able to make the argument effectively, and raising the money to do so, to show that Mollohan is out of alignment with this district.”
He shrugs off any suggestion that the national mood is against Republicans this year.
“No — I don’t see it. At any given time, if President Bush wants to come to my district, I would welcome him with open arms,” said Wakim, a Persian Gulf War veteran.
But county Democrats say West Virginia is hardly happy with Bush’s policies, particularly the war in Iraq. Mollohan voted against the war, and has not been hurt by that vote politically.
“This race is going to get won in Central West Virginia — steel, coal, hardworking, middle class people,” said Saunders. “They’re going to vote for Alan Mollohan.”