Will Doolittle do time?
Does the downfall of a local congressman mean something more than the latest corruption of a politician?
Whatever the ultimate outcome of the U.S. Department of Justice’s ongoing investigation into Congressman John T. Doolittle and his wife, Julie—and it’s been going on for three years now—clearly his political career is over. Even if he and his wife unexpectedly locate some loophole to avoid indictment or imprisonment for the two corruption cases in which their fund-raising activities are inextricably entangled, the Doolittles’ unsavory skimming of campaign contributions and personally pocketing more than a quarter-million dollars have forever finished off their reputations among their own conservative kith and kin. From Sacramento to Washington, the only discussion of the Doolittle case by political insiders from both parties regards strategy over when and how and by whom he should be replaced.
Reflective of this reality are two headlines about the man recently published on the conservative editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal: “Doolittle, Too Late” and “Republican Residue.” The point repeatedly made there is that the FBI could have raided Doolittle’s home, as they did on April 13, “only after a judge has issued a search warrant in response to government claims that there is probable cause that a crime has been committed.” California Democratic Party strategist Bob Mulholland has little doubt about what’s happening. “I think the Republican Party will try to throw Doolittle to the wolves,” he said in an interview. “Once you get a ‘Dear John’ letter from the FBI, no one returns your phone calls.”
Doolittle’s fall from being a member of the ruling Republican leadership in the House of Representatives to becoming a target in a U.S. Department of Justice corruption investigation follows a pattern similar to that of his Republican congressional brethren who are already in jail or might soon be. Doolittle’s wife set up a company—Sierra Dominion Financial Solutions—of which she was the only officer and employee. Suddenly Julie Doolittle had the “expertise” to obtain clients for “consulting” and “fund raising.” Most clients had business before committees on which her husband sat. (We don’t know for certain because the Doolittles refuse to release a list of her clients.) So far, over $150,000 from Doolittle’s campaign contributions has been paid out to his wife’s company. And his committee statements claim she is owed more than another $120,000. With California’s community-property law, it is the equivalent of Doolittle putting the campaign cash into his own bank account.
Whether Doolittle used his office and performed specific acts in exchange for monies paid to his wife’s company is the central legal issue at hand. But whatever the resolution of the question, nothing can wash the stink off a clearly corrupt arrangement.
The interesting question, though, is whether, after more than a quarter-century as a rising, and then prominent, political figure on the Sacramento and national scenes, the downfall of Doolittle means something more than the latest corruption of a politician.
Avalanche of animus
First, the personal qualities and character of Doolittle must openly and frankly be dealt with, for there is no figure currently on the California political stage who has consistently engendered as much overt loathing and disgust as Doolittle—as much from members of his own party as from his ideological counterparts. When he was fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission for laundering money to swing his 1984 election, his defeated opponent, former Senate Republican colleague Ray Johnson, foresaw that it would not be an adequate penalty to stop future misbehavior. “Oh God,” Johnson lamented in 1987 in the California Journal, “can’t we just drown him and get it over with?” A year after that comment, on the verge of Doolittle winning re-election based on another vicious campaign, Sacramento Bee columnist Pete Dexter couldn’t constrain his contempt. In print he pronounced Doolittle “a lying, unprincipled, crooked piece of human garbage.” Even for Dexter, this was strong stuff.
What evoked these and other expressions of outrage was the combination of characteristics that arises with regularity in American political life: the religious hypocrite, the sanctimonious scumbag. In Doolittle’s case, it is the devout Mormon with a highly selective ethical compass, which since the very beginning of his career consistently has drawn out such a continuous avalanche of animus toward him.
From Doolittle’s perspective, there must have been some considerable measure of spite and vengeful malice that motivated him and bridged the contradiction in his character. While many of the 1960s youth were struggling for political and cultural and personal liberation, the teen-aged Johnny Doolittle was dreaming of Richard Nixon. When he graduated as a history major from UC Santa Cruz in 1972, the town of Santa Cruz voted 96 percent for George McGovern. In the 1970s, while South America was in the throes of overcoming a century of colonialism and imperialism, Doolittle landed in Argentina as a Mormon missionary.
But in 1978, when he arrived in the state Capitol as a legislative aide to arch-conservative state Senator H.L. Richardson, commander-in-chief of Gun Owners of California and the Law and Order Campaign Committee, Doolittle finally had found a mentor and a base from which to operate. Richardson’s early sophisticated computer direct-mail operation gave Doolittle the weapons training he needed to do combat on the electoral battlefield.
Just two years later, Doolittle took the field as the Republican nominee for state Senate in the eastern Sacramento County district occupied by Al Rodda, a former college professor who at that time was the most respected member of the Legislature for his expertise and achievement in state education and finance reform. No one thought Doolittle had a chance, and the nonpartisan California Journal rated the seat as “Safe Democratic.”
When Doolittle emerged victorious in the most unexpected upset of the November 1980 election, the political establishment searched for answers. The incumbent’s complacency, the Doolittle smear that Rodda was “soft on crime” and voter confusion over the coincidental Capitol sex scandal of another state Senator with the initials A.R. (Alan Robbins from the San Fernando Valley) all were viewed as contributing to Doolittle’s triumph.
Revenge was sought. The establishment reapportioned Doolittle into a district that made him run against an incumbent Democrat, Leroy Greene, whom he could not and did not defeat. But because Doolittle had been elected to a four-year term in 1980, he continued to serve as a senator without a district. By 1984, he had landed in a newly redrawn district that was more favorable—but he faced a three-way race, with former Republican Johnson running against him as an Independent. Doolittle stooped to the gutter, funneling money to the Democratic candidate, who had no other support, in order to draw votes away from the popular Johnson. Doolittle survived by the margin of votes received by the Democrat. “Never has so little money done so much good,” pronounced Doolittle’s master, H.L. Richardson.
The FPPC fine that Doolittle would receive for these campaign violations would be the first, but not the last. Doolittle established a record and a hard-earned reputation as the zealously principled right-wing politician who zealously would do whatever it took to hold onto and expand his power. Perhaps the ultimate example of his principled unprincipled-ness occurred in the November 1994 general election for U.S. Congress. Facing a Democratic woman with a background as a software-company executive who had garnered the support of Hewlett-Packard, one of his district’s largest employers, Doolittle was taking no chances. The week of the election, voters received a letter with an endorsement of Doolittle by James Roosevelt, a founder of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and a son of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had signed the original Social Security Act into law in 1933. The mailer was significant because Doolittle had received extremely low ratings for his congressional record from all the major senior-citizen groups. Even more significant was the fact that, by then, Roosevelt had been dead for two years. On Election Day, Doolittle received 61 percent of the vote.
Bookends of an era
But Doolittle’s devious machinations may not have amounted to all that much if it also had not been for larger forces at work. In hindsight, one can identify the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 and the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 as the beginnings of a conservative ideological ascendance, one that more or less continued—and perhaps crested in the 2006 election. Whatever its sources and whatever accounts for its relative longevity, Doolittle’s rise and fall serve as the bookends of the era.
Whether it’s their aggressive overreach abroad or their negligent under-reach at home, the neoconservative Republican agenda with its ersatz Christian halo exhausted itself in failure. Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and climate change are among the key indicators of their collapse.
With time and a monopoly of national power on their hands, Doolittle and the House Republican leadership devolved into a corrupt clan of self-serving power brokers. In collusion with lobbyists like Jack Abramoff, Doolittle and friends found the economy of the Mariana Islands of urgent interest and importance. Projects unwanted by the Pentagon found millions earmarked for them by Congress members like Doolittle, who then collected considerable campaign contributions from the winning defense contractors. Arrangements were made so former staff could serve as the lobbyist interface between colluders and colludees. Meanwhile, Julie set herself up to grab a 15-percent commission from the contributions coming into her husband’s campaign coffers.
Conservative critics of Doolittle claim to have foreseen his bent toward corruption long ago. They point to his secret 1992 cooperation with liberal Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters to increase the perks available to members of the House of Representatives, from chauffeurs to per-diem allowances. Doolittle’s congressional colleagues and many of his constituents also had seen the drift of his ruthless campaign style to issues of serious concern. Promoting the Auburn Dam for decades as the only solution to the Sacramento Valley’s flood danger, Doolittle repeatedly turned aside compromises that would have addressed the problem. Instead, the Auburn Dam issue was required by Doolittle as a continuous campaign fund-raiser from the agricultural and developer interests, who want the water and want to pour concrete.
To whatever extent Doolittle’s decline signals a shift in the larger forces that are reshaping the state’s and the nation’s political dialogue, there still seems something exquisitely inevitable about him personally facing the prospect of criminal prosecution. His successful unbroken ride to power, while regularly violating the most basic ethical standards, must have had the effect of deluding him to believe there need not be any boundaries to his behavior.
In a remark suggestive of both his ambition and his underlying amorality, when he first arrived in Congress in 1991 Doolittle told a reporter, “You can do what you need to do here, and the only thing holding a person back is the person himself.” There is a growing likelihood that, in the near future, Doolittle will have some significant time on his hands to contemplate this insight.