Democrats, with administration help, tout projects, constituent aid in tough political season

By Julie Hirschfeld Davis, AP
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Federal help boosts vulnerable Democrats

WASHINGTON — It’s been a tough year for Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, one of dozens of Democrats facing a tight race to win re-election this fall.

So when President Barack Obama’s top transportation official, Secretary Ray LaHood, went to Seattle this month to tout the $30 million in federal grant money the administration was delivering to help unclog a notoriously snarled interchange downtown, it seemed like a major boon arriving at a critical time.

“We would not be standing here today if it weren’t for your courageous representatives in Congress,” LaHood, a former Illinois Republican congressman, said during an event largely devoted to praising Murray.

Her opponent, Republican businessman Dino Rossi, has dismissed the stimulus law that created the grant program as a failure that hasn’t produced jobs.

Voters across the country are dispirited about the economy, frustrated with Obama and fed up with their elected officials, according to national surveys that help explain why Democrats are in serious danger of losing their hold on the House and bracing for big losses in the Senate. But one thing the party in power has going for it is Obama’s ability to steer federal dollars and government projects to vulnerable candidates’ states and districts — and to dispatch high-profile members of his administration to boast of their accomplishments.

It’s a time-honored tradition in Washington, and one that could help embattled Democrats emphasize an argument they have been making to voters in an otherwise grim political environment: “Forget what you think of the president, my party, or even Congress — I’ve delivered for you.”

Or, as Murray herself put it as she stood with LaHood recently: “For those folks out there who are saying that the economic stimulus and the work we’ve done hasn’t created jobs, ask anyone here in a hard hat what it means to them to be able to get a paycheck because of projects just like this.”

That’s the same case Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, in an uphill fight for a third term, made this summer when she won a promise from Obama’s team for $1.5 billion in disaster aid for her state’s farmers.

Her GOP opponent, Rep. John Boozman, quickly dismissed the package — it ultimately amounted to just half that — as little more than a bailout for Lincoln’s political fortunes.

When Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff showed up in freshman Rep. Dan Maffei’s upstate New York district in July to announce an $8.5 million grant, he said he came bearing “Barack Obama’s checkbook.” Polls have shown Republican Ann Marie Buerkle in a tough race against Maffei, one of eight Democrats in the state at some risk of being toppled.

The money was for a new bus depot for Syracuse, N.Y., part of $293 million distributed nationwide by the agency for streetcars, buses and transit facilities.

Other lawmakers in tough races also have benefited richly from projects funded by Obama’s roughly $800 billion stimulus legislation. A $400 million loan guarantee funded by the law went to Abound Solar Manufacturing LLC, based in Loveland, Colo., home turf for Rep. Betsy Markey, one of the Democrats’ most endangered House incumbents.

Markey boasted in a news release that she “pushed the administration hard for this funding,” which Obama’s team says will go toward the expansion of a factory in her district and construction of a new one in Indiana.

Markey’s district also profited from a $45 million Energy Department grant to UQM Technologies, which builds electric vehicle propulsion systems. It used a portion of the money to build a new facility in Longmont, Colo.

With passage of the stimulus law last year, “there’s a lot more walking-around money in the executive branch’s pocket than there been in the past, and they can spread it out as they see fit,” said Steve Ellis of the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Even if it’s done on the up and up, unless it’s going to the reddest of the red states, people are going to say it’s going to vulnerable constituencies — and in some cases, they’re right.”

Vice President Joe Biden has traveled extensively to promote projects funded by stimulus money, including a visit in June to Louisville, Ky., where Rep. John Yarmuth is facing a challenge from Republican Todd Lally, a pilot with tea party support. Yarmuth invited Biden to a General Electric Appliance Park the company is expanding with the help of a $25 million stimulus tax credit.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has crisscrossed the country this year announcing hundreds of millions in federal grants to extend broadband Internet access to rural areas under a stimulus-funded programs. Many of them have gone to battleground districts and states such as Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, California and Arizona.

Even in a year when antipathy toward incumbents is rampant and government is something of a dirty word, savvy lawmakers are taking advantage of their offices to tout the favors they’ve secured and goodies they’ve won by using their connections and their votes to help constituents.

Lawmakers can use taxpayer-funded mail to communicate with voters at home about their accomplishments, except in certain times close to an election, and they are always permitted to send letters to fewer than 500 people in their districts — known as “499s” — about key issues.

Some have drawn fire for using the practice. Democrat Bill Hedrick, who’s challenging GOP Rep. Ken Calvert in Southern California, criticized the congressman last month for sending reams of mailers to constituents that Hedrick called “free publicity” just weeks before Election Day.

Democratic Rep. Harry Mitchell of Arizona wrote to constituents on his official letterhead to hail the news that 20 companies in the state — two are major employers in his district — had been accepted into a new program created by the health care law to help reduce costs for early retirees. A Republican-backed group is targeting Mitchell for voting for the legislation, saying he “betrayed” his constituents.

Oliver Schwab, a spokesman for Mitchell’s Republican opponent, David Schweikert, said the missive amounted to a “gross abuse of taxpayers’ dollars to benefit Congressman Mitchell’s campaign chances.”

Mitchell’s spokeswoman says he’s being criticized for keeping Arizonans up to date. “In the age of declining newspaper circulation and contracting newsrooms, the congressman tries to inform as many people as possible about things happening in Congress that could impact their lives,” said Sarah Coppersmith.

Like a well-timed appearance by a Cabinet official or a grant for a high-profile project in a lawmaker’s backyard, the communications are perfectly legal.

“It’s really easy to write (taxpayer-funded mail) in a way that doesn’t sound like campaign literature when in fact it is,” Ellis said. “It’s a huge perk of incumbency.”

Associated Press writers Michael Hill in Albany, N.Y., and George Tibbitts in Seattle, Wash., contributed to this report.

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