Six prominent Jewish House Members on Wednesday called on Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) not to seek re-election next year, as at least one notable state lawmaker said she is weighing an intraparty challenge against the embattled seven-term Congressman.
In a letter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif), Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman (Calif.), Martin Frost (Texas), Tom Lantos (Calif.), Sander Levin (Mich.), Ben Cardin (Md.) and Nita Lowey (N.Y.) wrote that they “cannot and will not support” Moran’s candidacy in 2004. Both Frost and Lowey formerly headed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the organization charged with protecting incumbents.
“We hope that as Jim reflects on his actions, he will decide not to seek re-election to the House of Representatives,” the group wrote.
Moran insisted Wednesday afternoon that he plans to stay and fight.
The letter to Pelosi was the latest blow to the Northern Virginia lawmaker, who has come under considerable fire from the leadership of both parties, as well as the White House, in the wake of his controversial comments regarding Jewish influence on U.S. policy toward Iraq.
In remarks at a March 3 anti-war forum in Reston, Moran suggested that the imminent war with Iraq is the result of prodding from the Jewish community. He has since apologized for the remarks, which he said were taken out of context and part of a broader point.
In an interview Wednesday, Virginia state Sen. Leslie Byrne (D), a former House Member, said she is being strongly encouraged to run against Moran in light of the maelstrom of controversy.
“I’ve told them that I will think about it and make a decision by this summer,” Byrne said, referring to those people who have approached her about running.
“Having served in Congress, I don’t go into this with any starry-eyed notions,” she added.
Byrne said she considered running against Moran last year, but decided the time was not right for her personally. The 56-year-old lawmaker is currently facing a crossroads in her political future since legislative redistricting has pitted her against another female Democrat, if she chooses to seek re-election to the state Senate this fall.
For now though, Byrne, who served one term in the House from 1992 to 1994, said she is weighing “whether I want that kind of rough and tumble Democratic Party bloodletting,” something she acknowledged a battle against Moran would be.
“Everybody who knows Jim knows that he’s a very combative person,” Byrne said. “It’s not going to be a pleasant process.”
Undeterred by the letter, Moran said Wednesday that he is running for re-election “more so than ever” and that he fully expects primary competition next year.
“I’m not going to be intimidated,” Moran said. “It’s unhealthy for the American political process for any group within our society to be able to decide who should and
shouldn’t represent a constituency.”
Moran predicted that there will be millions of dollars spent to defeat him but he said that will only make him work harder. He reiterated that he feels he’s being treated unfairly and that his comments are being taken out of context.
Political observers are already drawing parallels between Moran and former Reps. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Earl Hilliard
(D-Ala.), both of whom were defeated in primaries last year where their opponents were heavily financed by pro-Israel interests.
However, the success of any potential primary challenge against Moran is likely to hinge on how district party leaders decide to choose the party’s nominee.
In Virginia, party leaders in each Congressional district determine whether to select their nominee by primary or convention. Moran’s vulnerability would be notably higher in a primary, because the state does not require voters to register by party. And since Moran and his supporters are deeply entrenched in the district’s party apparatus, choosing an open primary would seem even more unlikely.
In Georgia, which has a similar open primary system, many of McKinney’s supporters blamed crossover Republican voters in part for her defeat.
Democrats are watching closely to see what, if anything, Gov. Mark Warner (D) does to try to thwart a Moran primary challenge. A Warner spokesman said this week that the governor found the remarks “offensive” but was glad Moran had apologized.
Last week, Warner named Mame Reiley to head his Political Action Committee. Reiley, a Democratic National Committeewoman, once served as chief of staff to Moran and remains deeply involved in 8th district politics.
In light of Moran’s most recent controversy, the names of a handful of other potential Democratic challengers have also surfaced.
Besides Byrne, Fairfax County Board Chairwoman Kate Hanley (D) and former Lt. Gov. Don Beyer (D) are both mentioned as potentially strong Democratic opponents in the 8th.
After serving eight years as lieutenant governor, Beyer was defeated in a 1997 gubernatorial bid and has since kept a low profile. But sources said that Beyer, who operates a chain of car dealerships in Northern Virginia, has recently been eyeing a political comeback.
House Republicans, meanwhile, pressed the Democratic leadership to take measures beyond discouraging Moran from seeking re-election.
Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who is Jewish, said in a statement that Democrats should remove Moran from the powerful Appropriations and Budget committees. Moran currently serves as the ranking member on the legislative branch Appropriations subcommittee.
“The Democratic leadership must re-examine Rep. Moran’s influence in his Caucus and reassign him to positions and committees that limit the damage his beliefs can do,” Cantor said.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), who also serves as co-chairman of the House Republican Caucus on Israel, also called on Democrats to take immediate action to address the Moran controversy.
Politically though, Reynolds acknowledged that the Virginia Congressman is not likely to be a top target for Republicans next year, noting there are more winnable seats to focus on.
“It is not a competitive seat,” Reynolds said. “It is a very difficult seat to win.”
The strength of the Democratic-leaning district was further reinforced during the 2001 redistricting process, during which the GOP-controlled state Legislature sought to protect incumbents. In the 2000 presidential election, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush would have won only 38 percent in the 8th.
Moran has a long history of physical and ethical scrapes that have produced public relations disasters. So far, he has been resilient enough to survive them.
Last year, The Washington Post revealed that he took a $447,000 loan from a credit card company just before he signed on to bankruptcy legislation that the company was supporting. He was also forced to return a $25,000 loan to former health care lobbyist Terry Lierman; although Moran and Lierman are old friends, the Post reported in 2000 that Moran sponsored legislation that one of Lierman’s pharmaceutical company clients favored.
Lierman was then challenging then-Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.), and the revelations contributed to his defeat.
In a widely reported incident in 2000, Moran angrily grabbed an 8-year-old boy in an Alexandria parking lot after he claimed that the boy had threatened him. The incident had racial overtones because the boy was black.
Moran also had noisy altercations with his wife while they were in the process of getting a divorce, and he also got into a shoving match with Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) on the House floor in 1995.
But Moran’s political problems predate his Congressional career, which began in 1991.
During his 1990 election against then-Rep. Stan Parris (R), Moran, then the mayor of Alexandria, said he wanted to break the incumbent’s nose and called him “a deceitful, fatuous jerk.”
In 1984, Moran was forced to resign as vice mayor after pleading no contest to a conflict of interest charge.
The letter from Moran’s colleagues to Pelosi stands in contrast to another letter that 11 Jewish Members wrote in his defense last fall. Then, Moran was one of a handful of Congressional candidates who had received — and returned — campaign contributions from the leader of an American Muslin organization who had expressed his support for the extremist Hamas and Hezbollah organizations.
Moran hasn’t necessarily won any friends in the Senate either.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who is Jewish, pointedly declined to say whether Moran should seek re-election.
“I was appalled by Representative Moran’s remarks, and you can draw whatever conclusion you want from that,” Feingold said Wednesday.
Erin P. Billings, Paul Kane and Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.