Saturday, February 18, 2006

How the Democrats took Paul Hackett out.

Backroom Battles
Economic sabotage, whisper campaigns, and threats:
Mother Jones
David Goodman
February 16 , 2006

Democratic Senate candidate and Marine Corps Major Paul Hackett is accustomed to waging quixotic battles and taking his hits. He just didn’t expect the lowest—and fatal—blows to come from his own party.

In an announcement that stunned many in Washington and even some in his campaign staff, Hackett declared on February 13, 2006, that he was dropping his bid for U.S. Senate in Ohio, ending his 11 month political career. “I made this decision reluctantly, only after repeated requests by party leaders, as well as behind-the-scenes machinations, that were intended to hurt my campaign,” he said, only hinting at what had gone down. The day after his withdrawal from the race, he told me about the backroom battles that forced him out.

Hackett was running against seven-term Akron Democrat Rep. Sherrod Brown in a May primary, with the winner going on to face two-term Republican Sen. Mike DeWine in November (assuming DeWine wins his own primary against a longshot Republican challenger). DeWine is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbent Republicans, and the national Democratic Party is pulling out the stops to defeat him.

But first, the Democrats had to get Hackett out of the way. The weapons used in the rubout included economic sabotage, whisper campaigns, and threats.

Hackett, an Iraq War combat veteran, was hailed last summer as just the kind of “fighting Democrat” the party needed to reinvigorate its base and end its years in the congressional wilderness. After narrowly losing a race for Congress in a lopsidedly Republican district outside Cincinnati last August, the telegenic veteran—famous for dissing President Bush as a “chickenhawk” and “sonuvabitch” while on the stump—was courted heavily by Democratic leaders, including Sens. Charles Schumer and Harry Reid, to take on DeWine. But no sooner did Hackett enter the Senate race last October than Brown announced his candidacy for Senate, reversing an earlier decision he had made to stay out of the race.

With Brown, a party insider, on board, the Democratic establishment quickly began pulling away from the fiery Hackett. Schumer, after having wooed him in August, called again in October. “Schumer didn’t tell me anything definitive,” Hackett told me at the time. “But I’m not a dumb ass, and I know what he wanted me to do.” Hackett, a maverick who relishes the fight, decided to buck the Beltway insiders, and stay in the race.

Hackett’s scorching rhetoric earned him notoriety and cash on the campaign trail. He declared that people who opposed gay marriage were “un-American.” He said the Republican party had been hijacked by religious extremists who he said “aren’t a whole lot different than Osama bin Laden.” Bloggers loved him, donors ponied up, while Democratic Party insiders grumbled that he wasn’t "senatorial."

Swift boats soon appeared on the horizon. A whisper campaign started: Hackett committed war crimes in Iraq—and there were photos. “The first rumor that I heard was probably a month and a half ago,” Dave Lane, chair of the Clermont County Democratic Party, told me the day after Hackett pulled out of the race. “I heard it more than once that someone was distributing photos of Paul in Iraq with Iraqi war casualties with captions or suggestions that Paul had committed some sort of atrocities. Who did it? I have no idea. It sounds like a Republican M.O. to me, but I have no proof of that. But if it was someone on my side of the fence, I have a real problem with that. I have a hard time believing that a Democrat would do that to another Democrat.”

In late November, Hackett got a call from Sen. Harry Reid. “I hear there’s a photo of you mistreating bodies in Iraq. Is it true?” demanded the Senate minority leader. “No sir,” replied Hackett. To drive home his point, Hackett traveled to Washington to show Reid’s staff the photo in question. Hackett declined to send me the photo, but he insists that it shows another Marine—not Hackett—unloading a sealed body bag from a truck. “There was nothing disrespectful or unprofessional,” he insists. “That was a photo of a Marine doing his job. If you don’t like what they’re doing, don’t send Marines into war.”

A staffer in Reid’s office confirmed that Hackett had showed them several photos. “The ones I saw were part of a diary he kept while serving in Iraq and were in no way compromising. The one picture in question depicted Marines doing their work on what looked like a scorching day in Iraq,” said the aide.

But the whispering continued, and Hackett was troubled. “It creates doubt and suspicion,” Hackett told me, saying his close supporters were asking him privately about the rumors. “It tarnishes my very strength as a candidate, my military service. It’s like you take a handful of seeds, throw them up in the wind, and they blow all around and start growing. It really bothered me.”

Hackett backers suspected the smear was being floated by Sherrod Brown’s campaign. A senior Brown staffer angrily dismissed the charge this week as “ridiculous.”

Brown campaign spokesperson Joanna Kuebler declined to respond to the rumors. She offered this prepared statement: “This campaign has never been about Paul Hackett or about Sherrod Brown. This campaign is about the hard working people of Ohio, and what Republican corruption has done to them.”

Hackett wanted to fight to the finish. He raised nearly a half-million dollars in the last quarter of 2005, matching Brown’s fundraising. But Brown entered the Senate race with $2 million in the bank, a strategic cushion. Early polls show both Brown and Hackett running in a dead heat against DeWine. An internal poll done in February for the Hackett campaign that was obtained by the Cleveland Plain Dealer showed Brown leading Hackett by 20 points, but Hackett took the lead if voters simply heard both candidates' bios. The analysis concluded, “If Paul Hackett can raise the funds necessary to communicate his message to the voters of Ohio, he will present Sherrod Brown with a formidable challenge in May.”

With the very real prospect of a smear against him going public late in the campaign—a la the Swift Boating of John Kerry—Hackett knew that dollars would be especially important for him. “If I don’t have the $2 million or $3 million it would take to respond in the final weeks, to influence the battlefield with my message, then I would just be reacting and I’ll get trounced,” said Hackett.

Hackett had demonstrated his ability to shake money from donors during a January fundraising roadshow in California and New York. But he soon discovered that top Democrats were attempting to cut off his money. The hosts of a Beverly Hills fundraiser for Hackett received an e-mail from the political action committee of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) that concluded, “I hope you will re-consider your efforts on behalf of Hackett and give your support to Sherrod.” Waxman’s chief of staff, Phil Schiliro, said the e-mail was only sent to a handful of people and that “it probably came from a suggestion from the Sherrod Brown campaign.”

Michael Fleming, who manages Internet millionaire David Bohnett’s political and charitable giving, was one of the recipients of the Waxman email. Bohnett has given to hundreds of progressive candidates, but Fleming says, “This was the first time I had ever gotten an email or communication like that. I find it discouraging and disheartening. It’s unfortunate that the powers that be didn’t let the people of Ohio figure this out. We should be in the business of encouraging people like Paul Hackett and viable progressive candidates like him to run. The message instead is don’t bother, it’s not worth your time.”

Sen. Schumer was also reported to be trying to turn off Hackett’s cash spigots. No one would confirm this to me on the record. But veteran political activist David Mixner, who described himself as “a fanatically strong supporter” of Hackett and who helped sponsor a New York fundraiser, confirmed that he “received calls from a couple people in Congress urging Paul Hackett to withdraw or not to contribute money to his campaign. The reasons ranged from he can’t win, to he’s too controversial, Brown has more money, is more centrist, and more appealing. It was that inner beltway circle crap,” said Mixner. “They are people who have no idea what’s going on in the country but believe they know everything.”

Mixner added, “I don’t think it’s inappropriate to call me. What’s inappropriate is that the people calling me were the same people who asked him to run, and now they wanted to push him out. That's what made this unique.”

Hackett was infuriated by the subterfuge. “I felt like I got fucked by the Democratic Party because they enticed me in and then they pulled the rug out from beneath me. It sounds eerily familiar to sending in the military to Iraq, which was a misuse of the military, and then not giving them what they need to fight.”

In what is being called the Valentine’s Day Massacre, Paul Hackett threw in the towel, and insisted he would not be running for elected office anytime soon. He declined requests to switch races and run again in the Ohio Second Congressional District against Rep. Jean Schmidt, saying he had promised the candidates currently in that race that he wouldn’t run. “My word is my bond and I will take it to my grave,” he declared.

As word spread about the intra-party intrigue that helped bring down Hackett, supporters have reacted angrily. “If the Democratic Party continues with these suicidal decisions, we will continue to defeat ourselves,” declared Yolanda Parker, who recently attended a California fundraiser for Hackett. “The only strategy the Republicans need to stay in power is patience. They just need to wait while our party self-implodes through idiotic decisions such as the one to pressure an articulate Iraqi war veteran to pull out of the race.”

Party officials have tried to tamp down the anger. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spokesman Phil Singer stated, “Neither the DSCC nor Senator Schumer reached out to donors to ask them to take sides in this race. Paul Hackett’s statesman-like decision will help us win one of the most important Senate races in the nation.”

Hackett, who says he would still like to help “retool” the Democratic Party, ends his meteoric political career with some advice for other maverick candidates. “They simply can’t rely on any of the party infrastructure to help them, and they must assume that people at high levels will work against them. These guys,” he says of the party insiders, “view the Senate as a club. They’re not gonna welcome you if one day they turn the key on the clubhouse door and you are sitting there with your feet on the table flippin’ them the middle finger. I understand that from their perspective. It works for them, but not for the rest of us out here.”

David Goodman is a Mother Jones contributing writer and co-author of The Exception to the Rulers.

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Powered by Blogger