News: 1st District Reprise

Cranley mounts second campaign against incumbent Chabot

Sep 6, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Jon Hughes/

U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot says his challenger, John Cranley, is avoiding controversial issues, including the war in Iraq.

On the surface, the showdown between U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Westwood) and Cincinnati City Councilman John Cranley, his Democratic challenger, for Ohio's 1st Congressional District seat seems a mere replay of their 2000 race.

That year, the freshly scrubbed, baby-faced Cranley — a political neophyte who had recently graduated from Harvard Law School and never held a full-time job — returned to his hometown to take on Chabot, a somber Newt Gingrich-era politician then completing his third term as part of a wave of conservative lawmakers swept into office to oppose President Clinton, scale back government and end what many viewed as waste and corruption in Washington.

In that race, Chabot beat Cranley by a 53-44 percent margin, with a Libertarian candidate capturing 2 percent of the vote.

Six years later, though, much has changed. The earlier race occurred before George W. Bush "won" the presidency. Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Before the recession that ended the economic boom of the 1990s and the return of record-breaking federal deficits.

Perhaps more important, the earlier race was before the Iraq War began, before allegations about U.S. human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, before revelations about the president authorizing warrantless wiretapping of American citizens and accessing their Internet records.

It's a different world now, and a different race.

Mutual misrepresentation
Cranley, who has since spent five years on city council, hopes to tap into growing apprehension that many voters have about how the Iraq War was launched and managed and the questions it raises about Bush's leadership and judgment.

Noting that Chabot has voted to support Bush on issues nearly 92 percent of the time, Cranley believes lawmakers need to be more willing to question the president and restore the traditional system of checks and balances built into the federal government.

"The Republican Congress, and Steve Chabot in particular, have lost the confidence of the people in the country and in the 1st District, based on their unwillingness to hold the Bush administration accountable," Cranley says. "I love our country, and I think we're on the wrong track. We need to change. Staying the course is not only wrong, it's dangerous given the situation internationally and given the situation domestically.

"Everything from the way they've prosecuted the war in Iraq to their failure to raise the minimum wage, they've gotten it wrong on so many different counts. I believe in an America that restores the American dream, balances the budget, doesn't pass on this debt to our kids, raises the minimum wage, expands access to affordable healthcare for all working Americans. These are the things that I want to fight for."

Chabot says Cranley deliberately misrepresents his record. In July, Cranley's campaign accused Chabot of voting against an amendment to renew a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Cranley said Chabot opposed a section that mandates the availability of bilingual ballots in areas where a significant portion of voters don't speak English.

In fact, Chabot supported the provision; he actually opposed another amendment that involved funding for the United Nations. Cranley's campaign apologized, but Chabot's camp says it shows his opponent's sloppiness with detail and penchant for distorting truth.

"His whole strategy is negative attacks, both by him and the special interest groups that support him," Chabot says.

But sloppiness isn't confined to the Democrats. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ran TV ads in July praising Chabot for supporting the Medicare prescription drug coverage bill in 2003. Chabot opposed the bill, however, and red-faced chamber officials quickly pulled the spots.

Chabot maintains he's not a rubber stamp for Bush.

"I vote my conscience on the issue and in a manner consistent with the best interest of our community," he says. "When I agree with the result, like tax relief, I'll vote that way. When I disagree, I vote against the president."

The congressman can cite several instances when his independent streak has shone through.

"For example, I opposed the president and Republican leadership in voting against the Medicare prescription drug bill," Chabot says. "Illegal immigration is another issue in which the president and I clearly disagree. I also supported a Democrat amendment to the Iraq War supplemental (bill) that would have made half of the $87 billion for Iraqi reconstruction a loan rather than a grant."

Still, statistics kept by the non-partisan Vote Tracker monitoring service show Chabot voted to support Bush's position on bills 79 times during his current congressional term, through Aug. 4; he voted to defy the president's stance seven times. The record ranks Chabot as 98th of 435 House members in that category, tied with four other lawmakers.

The statistic troubles Cranley.

"On the big issues of war and energy, Chabot is with Bush and Cheney all the way, and I think that's why we need a change," he says. "There is an appetite for change across party lines, in this district and across the country."

Two Catholic white guys
Ohio's 1st Congressional District is about as Middle America as districts come. Spanning roughly from Vine Street in downtown Cincinnati westward to the Indiana state line and northward into Butler County, the district also covers communities such as Evendale, Norwood, Reading, Springdale, White Oak, Woodlawn, Colerain Township and Delhi Township. Its demographic makeup is 69 percent white and 27 percent African-American.

Despite its reputation as a stronghold of conservative Catholics and Chabot's lock on the congressional seat since 1995, the district has elected both Republicans and Democrats in the past. Voters there gave a slim victory to Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election; they were almost evenly divided between Bush and Sen. John Kerry in 2004, with 51 percent supporting Bush and 49 percent for Kerry.

"I don't think people are nearly as partisan as the media and pundits like to think they are," Cranley says. "People are focused on issues that affect their lives. My district has a history of following the national trend. My district is the heartland. It reflected the national split on Gore/Bush and it reflected the split on Kerry/Bush. This district is a very good representation of what America is all about. It's not too conservative, and it's not too liberal."

Democrats aren't the only ones who consider the district up for grabs. Earlier this year the Republican National Committee put Chabot on a list of vulnerable incumbents and used a Tom DeLay-created political action committee to help him raise money for TV and radios ads.

Unlike in the 2000 race, Cranley this time has the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee promising financial help as part of a concerted effort to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In some ways, Chabot and Cranley are very similar. Both men are Catholics, born and raised on Cincinnati's West Side. Both are attorneys. Both began their political careers by serving on city council.

But Cranley, 32 and single, describes himself as a moderate Democrat involved in social justice issues such as whether the death penalty is applied fairly. On city council, he has taken a lead role in hiring more police officers and trying to end the concentration of federally subsidized housing for the poor in city neighborhoods.

Chabot, 53 and married, is a conservative Republican. He sponsored a bill outlawing a procedure sometimes called partial-birth abortion; a challenge is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. He has also supported stricter anti-drug laws and measures to protect corporations from product-liability lawsuits.

Each candidate accuses the other of not remaining true to his core values.

Cranley notes that Chabot, in his first congressional campaign, criticized his opponent for abusing franking privileges — free postage for members of Congress. At the time, Chabot said he would use franking only to respond to specific constituent inquiries and not for mass mailings, a pledge since broken.

Also, Cranley notes that Chabot railed against corporate welfare in his earliest campaigns but has voted for large tax breaks to oil companies. Further, Chabot and his staff have accepted about $77,000 in privately paid trips since 2001 despite initially stating he wanted restrictions on such travel.

"This shows just how much Steve Chabot has changed," Cranley says. "He went to change Washington, and Washington changed Steve."

Meanwhile, Chabot criticizes Cranley for refusing to take a clear public stand on the Iraq War and declining to fill out questionnaires from non-partisan voter education groups like Project Vote Smart.

"He's tried to avoid taking a stand on any controversial issue," Chabot says.

To be sure, some differences between the candidates are clear. Cranley prefers beginning a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq but doesn't want to set a final date for when all troops should be gone. Chabot opposes any withdrawal until Iraqi security forces are fully trained and equipped.

Also, Cranley opposes any privatization of the Social Security system, saying its solvency relies on the concept of "shared sacrifice, shared benefit" for all. Chabot wants to keep the current Social Security system but prefers allowing future beneficiaries to earmark some of their contributions to private investment accounts.

Chabot believes he's a better fit for the district.

"I think I share the values of the voters here," he says. "He's too liberal for this district."

Cranley refutes the claim and alleges Chabot is out of touch. As a city councilman, Cranley said local officials frequently heard from former U.S. Rep. Rob Portman asking about how he could help the region, but not from Chabot.

"Virtually never do we get that from Chabot," Cranley says. "I believe I can fight for the people of this district in a way to bring the proper federal representation to bear to fight for the specific local issues that Congresspeople can make a difference." ©