Race for your life, Charlie Brown

Could ex-Republican Charlie Brown be the one to beat Doolittle?

In another time, in another congressional district, Charlie Brown would be a Republican. Today he’s the Democrats’ best shot in a long time to knock off John Doolittle.

In another time, in another congressional district, Charlie Brown would be a Republican. Today he’s the Democrats’ best shot in a long time to knock off John Doolittle.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Charlie Brown really thinks he’s got a shot at the congressional seat in California’s 4th District. Maybe nobody told him that his home district’s boundaries were drawn to keep a Democrat from ever winning there.

In any case, the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel is serious about representing an area that runs from well-heeled Sacramento suburbs east to the Nevada border and north to the Oregon border. He’s got a message of security, fiscal responsibility and old-fashioned American common sense that he thinks will appeal to the voters.

“My No. 1 issue is the Constitution,” Brown said forcefully, “including the Second Amendment.”

He’s pretty conservative for a Democrat. “We need a strong defense. Security has to be a top priority. But it can’t come at the expense of our Constitution,” he said. Brown has no problem talking about controversial issues, though he jokes that his campaign advisers would like him to be a little less upfront. He’s pro-choice, but “only because the government doesn’t get to make personal decisions for Americans, no matter how much they might like to do so.” Many people make personal decisions he doesn’t approve of, but that’s the nature of liberty. “I don’t have to approve. I don’t even have to understand. It’s not about me. It’s about individual liberties.”

Brown knows that John Doolittle’s job in Congress is not supposed to be vulnerable. But the turmoil of the Jack Abramoff lobbying-money scandal and Doolittle’s ties to embattled former House Speaker Tom DeLay, coupled with rising dissatisfaction with the way the Republican Congress has rubber-stamped the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq and growing concern about deficit spending, have led some Democrats to think that the six-term congressman may not be the shoo-in he’s been in the past.

“Between helping his wife get rich consulting for Jack Abramoff and throwing fund-raisers in Jack Abramoff’s skybox, when does John Doolittle have time to look out for the interests of California families?” asked Kate Bedlingfield, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Although the DCCC won’t endorse a candidate in the primary, it’s convinced that the sixth-ranking House Republican could have a rougher time in this election than he ever has.

The question of whether the voters of the 4th District will oust Doolittle, though, is a tough one. According to Barbara O’Connor, a professor of communications at California State University, Sacramento, and the director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media, it’s not simply a matter of voting against Doolittle. “That is an exceptionally conservative district,” she told SN&R. “In many ways, it’s even more conservative than Orange County.” While Doolittle’s involvement with Abramoff may catch the attention of voters in the 4th, “it will take a lot more than not being Doolittle to win there.”

The Doolittle campaign isn’t particularly worried. Richard Robinson, a spokesperson at the campaign office in Granite Bay, told SN&R that the congressman “is stronger than he’s ever been.” Robinson went on to say that “adversity tends to galvanize supporters,” and that has been happening for Doolittle. “We’ve raised twice the money that we usually do in the last quarter,” Robinson said, noting that he’d never seen such support so early in the campaign cycle.

It’s no surprise that Doolittle is far and away the leader in raising money. According to reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission, Doolittle took in almost $800,000 in the first quarter of 2006, spent a little over $299,000 and ended the quarter with more than $400,000 on hand. No other candidate in the district has yet broken the $100,000 mark—and, according to O’Connor, “in that district, money will count.” The reason, she said, is geographic size. “That makes it a media campaign,” and those take money.

But the money issue—and the size of Doolittle’s war chest—may also give his opponents a chance to point out one of his weaknesses: the controversy surrounding his fund-raising and campaign-contribution practices. “It may depend on how angry the voters up there are about the campaign-finance and lobbying scandal,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor also thinks that recent demographic shifts in voter registrations could make a difference. A large number of younger and first-time voters are registering as third-party voters and “decline-to-states.” Republicans make up slightly more than 48 percent of the voters registered in the district. Democrats account for just a bit over 30 percent. That leaves 21 percent of the registered voters, the vast majority of whom—16.5 percent—fall into the decline-to-state category.

“Party loyalty is not the main thing there,” said O’Connor. “Younger voters are really looking at the platform. So when a candidate comes along and says, ‘I’m not your parents’ kind of Democrat,’ it gets their attention.” She noted that the upwardly mobile younger voters of the district might find a fiscally conservative and socially moderate candidate like Brown attractive, especially if Doolittle continues to have difficulties.

Matt Rexroad, a Republican political consultant, disagrees. “The number of decline-to-states has risen, but even if everything goes bad for the Republicans—nationwide, statewide—a Republican will still win in that district,” he said. “As long as you’re not Osama bin Laden and you have an ‘R’ after your name, you will win in a district that’s 48-percent Republican.” Rexroad’s emphatic about that point.

Robinson put it just as bluntly: “This district doesn’t elect liberal Democrats.”

Doolittle’s got a challenger in his own party. Mike Holmes, the mayor of Auburn, hopes to beat him in the primary. Barring a major catastrophe for Doolittle, there’s not much chance of that; the congressman has the unconditional backing of his party.

And Brown has competition for the Democratic nomination. Michael Hamersley, who works for the state’s Franchise Tax Board, is best known as a former tax accountant for the firm KPMG International. He blew the whistle on illegal offshore tax shelters used by U.S. corporations and was featured in a PBS Frontline documentary titled “Tax Me If You Can.” While he’s strong on fiscal issues, he might also be perceived as anti-business by the staunchly pro-business voters of the 4th.

Lisa Rea, the other Democratic candidate, has lengthy background and experience with the state Legislature, a definite plus. She’s currently president of the Justice and Reconciliation Project, a national nonprofit dedicated to restorative justice. While that’s an innovative and holistic approach to dealing with crime, the odds that the district’s voters will simply see another “criminal-hugging liberal” are pretty high.

That leaves Charlie Brown. As O’Connor would say, he’s not your father’s Democrat. For openers, he just got the endorsement of the California Democratic Party. And, he’s raised a good chunk of campaign money—while his roughly 60 grand isn’t even close to Doolittle’s treasure trove, it’s still a good six times more than the next-closest Democrat. But he’s not all about the Benjamins.

Brown seems like a moderate Republican dream candidate. An Iowa farm boy, he went to the Air Force Academy for two reasons: “I wanted to serve my country, and I’d always wanted to fly.” He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in engineering, married his college sweetheart and went into helicopters after his commission because “they needed guys who would fly these rescue helicopters, and I thought, ‘That’s something I could be proud of, going in on rescue and relief missions.’”

So why is Charlie Brown a Democrat? He started out a Republican. His mother, Betty Brown, is a past president of the Iowa Federation of Republican Women, and when he registered to vote at 21, he joined the GOP.

“I didn’t leave my party,” explained Brown. “My party left me.”

Brown feels that the Republicans have abandoned conservative values. “What do Republicans believe anymore?” he asked. “Do they believe in individual liberties when they’re saying it’s OK to spy on American citizens, to suspend habeas corpus? Do they believe in small government when they’re creating huge and ineffective bureaucracies? Do they believe in fiscal responsibility when they’re running up huge deficits?”

What Brown’s got, said O’Connor, is a message that “is not a bad package at all for that district. He’s fiscally conservative. He’s articulating a social message that is moderate. And when it comes to issues of national security and defense, it’s pretty hard to argue with his record of service.”

His 26-year career started during the Vietnam War. Brown fought in the last battle of that war, in May 1975. Cambodian forces, believing that the United States would not respond, seized the USS Mayaguez and impounded it at the island of Koh Tang. A young lieutenant Brown was the co-pilot of a rescue helicopter—called a “Jolly Green” by fliers—that was part of the mission to recover the vessel and crew.

Told that the island was unfortified, and with mission plans that were redrawn frequently by Washington commanders, Brown and his fellow servicemen flew into massive enemy resistance. “The island was reinforced and had heavy guns in place. Several of the attack choppers were set aflame on the beach,” he said, and their crews had taken cover in the jungle to fire on the enemy. Brown’s helicopter landed on the beach, “and we heard these ‘clunk-clunk’ sounds.” The noise was from the enemy’s .50-caliber rounds.

“We were waiting for the guys who had taken cover in the jungle to run out and get in the chopper, and they were waiting for us to bail out and join them in firing from the bushes,” Brown said.

They soon got the helicopter airborne—the fire-suppression systems on their chopper worked properly, unlike the systems on some of the other aircraft—and they made it to a small village before landing for emergency repairs and flying back to base later that night. Several of the men who’d gone on the mission became the last casualties of the Vietnam War. One of his friends, he said, “is the very last name on the Wall.”

The experience taught him that “the political leaders had no idea what combat, what fighting for your life and your friends, was all about.” It was, in the aftermath of 9/11, an experience that came to mind often as he watched the administration’s insistence on going after Iraq, a fixation that made no sense to Brown.

He’d completed two tours in Saudi Arabia, where he coordinated intelligence flights over Iraq. We knew that the WMD programs had been dismantled and that the U.N.’s program was working. And we knew that we didn’t have to worry about bin Laden in Iraq, because he and Saddam Hussein were like—” He slammed two closed fists together to demonstrate the two at loggerheads.

So when the administration was making the case for war in Iraq, “I knew they were misrepresenting the situation,” he said. “I’d been there. That’s wrong in so many ways, but not the least is that our young people are dying for a lie.”

It’s not just his own service that motivates him—his son, Air Force Capt. Jeff Brown, is stationed in Iraq, where he flies a C-130 transport aircraft.

How will Charlie Brown’s brand of moderate conservatism play in the 4th District? There are plenty of variables, including a primary in which Democrats may decide in favor of a more traditionally liberal representative of their party.

Still, O’Connor said, “Just remember, anything can happen between now and Election Day. But anybody who thinks Charlie Brown doesn’t have a chance is out of his mind.”