Congressional race is heating up

William Ferchland
Tracy Peterson / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Congressional candidate Charlie Brown, right, talks to potential voter James Crawford, 64, at the South Lake Tahoe Senior Center in July.

California’s most contentious Congressional race is pitting a Republican turned Democrat with a famous name against a stalwart politician who, for the first time, appears vulnerable in his reelection bid.

And on Friday, Charlie Brown brought his campaign to South Lake Tahoe.

About 50 people crammed into Steve Goldman’s living room and kitchen to hear Brown, the Democratic challenger to a House of Representatives seat that John Doolittle, R-Roseville, has held firmly since 1991.

Dressed in khakis and a blue collared shirt, Brown spoke of reallocating federal funds instead of raising taxes, ending the war in Iraq and invoking a change in Washington.

“We’re going to take our country back,” Brown said.

He faces a formidable opponent in Doolittle, an entrenched political figure known for his conservative positions who has won reelection six times with at least 60 percent of the vote.

But the tenor of November’s primary is different from past years. Some political pundits anticipate voters will usher more Democrats into Congress to replace Republicans. Doolittle, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, has had the national spotlight on himself for his associations with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Doolittle is also known to support President George Bush, who has seen his approval rating rebound from a low of 31 percent and could face a political backlash from voters.

But Doolittle represents a rural congressional district known for being partisan, and his voting records reflect such conservatism. His 2005 voting record was given 92 points out of 100 from the American Conservative Union.

Jim Cox, a government professor at Sacramento State University, said Brown faces an “uphill battle” to win the seat.

“This is considered one of the safest seats in California, or it has been,” he said.

“I think the only reason that he would lose is because of some of the allegations swirling around him,” Cox added.

Cox referenced Doolittle’s pursuit of a dam in Auburn as an example of bringing federal dollars into his district. Couple that with Doolittle being entrenched in the Republican leadership and it would take a crowbar to pry Doolittle from the seat.

Some believe Brown could be that crowbar. As a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, he has the military background typically embraced by conservatives. He has a California teaching credential and worked for the past eight years with the Roseville Police Department.

A story told on the campaign trail by Brown, or his wife, Jan, who relayed it at Goldman’s house, is their son flying Doolittle in a helicopter in Iraq. Doolittle, they said, didn’t take the opportunity to speak to Jeff Brown, who is on his fourth tour of Iraq with the Air Force.

Then there’s this: Brown switched allegiances from being a Republican to a Democrat because of his dissatisfaction with the GOP.

A poll by Benenson Strategy Group in Washington stated the race is even among 400 likely voters in the district, according to Todd Stenhouse, Brown’s communications director.

But Doolittle spokesman Richard Robinson said Brown’s camp is aching for media attention and the poll results are “not consistent” with their internal polls.

“They don’t even resemble reality,” Robinson said. “Their campaign is struggling for attention, struggling for credibility and struggling for legitimacy.”

With Bush visiting El Dorado County next month to campaign for Doolittle, Stenhouse said the incumbent is the one who is struggling.

“He does not campaign for safe incumbents,” Stenhouse said. “He campaigns for people in trouble.”

Frank Stephens, who Doolittle appointed vice chair of the El Dorado County Republican Central Committee, believes Brown is the best candidate in years who has challenged Doolittle for the seat.

But Brown’s lack of experience in public office and desire to slowly withdraw troops in Iraq – which could be interpreted as defeat – is not appealing for members of the 4th Congressional District, Stephens said.

For Jeff Stone, who attended the Friday house party, Brown represents a needed attitude change in Washington.

“I just want Doolittle gone,” Stone said. “I think he’s part of the arrogance.”

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