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The Byrne Identity

Mystery: Will Moran Face Ex-Rep. in Primary?

With less than a year to go before Rep. Jim Moran’s (Va.) political fate is decided by 8th district Democratic primary voters, one large question mark looms in what is expected to be a bloody and contentious race: state Sen. Leslie Byrne (D).

Byrne, who this spring formed a committee to explore the 8th district race, said in an interview Tuesday that she doesn’t plan to decide whether to challenge the embattled Moran until after the state’s legislative races conclude in November. She has not raised more than the $5,000 threshold that requires candidates to file with the FEC and sounds ambivalent about rejoining the institution where she once served.

A former one-term Congresswoman, Byrne’s state Senate district was carved up and essentially eliminated during the 2001 redistricting, and she is not seeking re-election this year.

“For every good reason to do it, there’s a good reason not to,” an uncommitted Byrne said, referring to the Congressional race.

If she does run, she would be the third Democrat to challenge Moran in the June 8, 2004, primary. Outgoing Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Kate Hanley and attorney Andy Rosenberg are the Democratic challengers who have already announced their candidacies.

Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette (D) said in August he was running but withdrew from the race a week later. At the time he said he realized the election would basically amount to a referendum on Moran, precluding a campaign based on issues.

Fisette would have been the first openly gay person to represent the South in Congress had he been elected.

Jeremy Bash (D), a Washington, D.C., attorney who disclosed several months ago that he was also considering challenging Moran, said Tuesday, “I am still weighing my options.”

But the entrance of Byrne, a tenacious politician who represented the neighboring 11th district in Congress from 1992 to 1994, has the biggest potential to change the race’s dynamics.

Byrne showed little concern when asked if November might be too late to enter a primary against three other candidates with a substantial head start in fundraising.

As of June 30, Hanley had raised $144,000 while Rosenberg raised $158,000. Moran raised $230,000 and reported having $254,000 in the bank at the end of June.

“I don’t think raising money is a problem,” Byrne said, adding that she has pledges totaling “several thousand dollars” that she plans to collect if she enters the race. “The biggest problem is whether I want to do it or not.”

Although Byrne said she had been encouraged to run by some Members of Congress, and she said she talked briefly about the race with former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (N.Y.) at an recent event, one of the biggest factors in her decision is whether she wants to rejoin the body.

“The biggest barrier is whether I want to run and if I win, do I want to serve in Congress?” Byrne said. “The issue comes back to do I want to serve in Congress again when I see how terribly ill-served” people are by the legislative process on Capitol Hill.

Byrne also shot down the idea that having another candidate in the primary would ultimately benefit Moran because it would further split the anti-Moran forces.

She argued that the current field is comprised of “pro-business Democrats” and that if she runs she would be able to more strongly appeal to three of the party’s core constituencies: environmental, labor and women’s groups. Both Byrne and Moran have enjoyed the strong support of labor groups in the past.

“There’s quite a void for the Democratic voice” in the primary field, she said.

Moran has had a controversial career over the past decade, one that includes conflict of interest questions related to financial arrangements with lobbyists and unwanted headlines from altercations with an 8-year-old boy and his now-ex-wife.

But Moran sparked the most intense backlash to date in March when he suggested that Jews were pushing the United States into war with Iraq. His comments drew the ire of national Jewish groups and fellow Democrats in the House, six of whom wrote a letter vowing that they would not support his re-election.

He has never faced a primary challenge in the heavily Democratic 8th since being elected in 1990.

One source in the Moran camp suggested that if Byrne enters the race, it is not likely she would enjoy widespread support within the Jewish community. Specifically, the source noted, Byrne was one of six cosponsors of a 1994 resolution condemning the Hebron massacre and expressing concern over other Palestinian casualties.

“I was honored at a Muslim fundraiser for standing up for human rights,” Byrne conceded. “Some Jewish group has questioned whether I should have done that and I think that’s just fine.”

She added: “Obviously Moran is running scared, and I think he has every reason to be scared.”