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Lenhard Backs McGahn for FEC Post

Former Federal Election Commission Chairman Robert Lenhard, a Democrat, is backing new White House nominee Don McGahn to fill a vacant seat at the agency.

“Don McGahn and his background are good for the FEC,” said Lenhard, who recently took his name out of consideration to finish out a full term. “It’s important that at a minimum, some of the commissioners have real practical experience counseling people with how to comply with the law and wrestling with how the regulations intersect with actual operations in the political world.”

McGahn, a former National Republican Congressional Committee lawyer, was nominated last week to the agency along with Republican Caroline Hunter, a member of the Election Assistance Commission, and Cynthia Bauerly, an aide to Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.).

The new White House plans call for combining the three new nominees with current Democratic commissioner Ellen Weintraub and two holdover nominees, Republican Hans von Spakovsky and Democrat Steven Walther, in hopes of bringing the elections regulator back online before November — perhaps in time to dole out Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) share of the presidential public financing money.

Lenhard’s endorsement of McGahn comes as Senate leaders debate President Bush’s plan to revive the agency, a proposal that has Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center and others in campaign finance community up in arms. Reformers continue to criticize former Justice Department lawyer von Spakovsky’s nomination, but are now also sinking their teeth into McGahn, who would replace reform-favorite David Mason, a Republican commissioner who was jettisoned by the White House and Senate GOP leaders.

Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer and Gerry Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center both called McGahn extreme, arguing that he’s too political to be an objective voice on the panel and has unconventional views about the role of money in federal elections.

“He’s too ideological,” Hebert said. “He’s outside of the mainstream.”

But Lenhard said he feels McGahn’s pain. “This is what they said about me,” said Lenhard, a former American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees lawyer, reflecting on his initial nomination half a decade ago, which was lambasted by The New York Times’ editorial board at the time as a “Fresh Hope for Fat Cats.”

And Times writers last week didn’t spare McGahn, a nominee they called a “Republican war horse.”

“McGahn has a particularly partisan background,” the Times wrote in a May 8 editorial. “He was the party’s Congressional campaign counsel — and the ethics lawyer for Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader from Texas who left office under multiple clouds.”

Lenhard, who is now in private practice, said his tenure at the agency, during which the FEC collected record fines, proves the reformers wrong. And doomsday predictions that he would carry organized labor’s water at the FEC, Lenhard said, in hindsight were “simply not true.”

Lenhard encouraged McGahn’s skeptics to give him the benefit of the doubt based on his years of legal practice and familiarity with election law.

“Don certainly is very knowledgeable about the law, very knowledgeable about how the agency works,” Lenhard said. “That experience would be enormously helpful for him serving as a commissioner. And it would be enormously helpful for commission decision-making.”

“These blanket criticisms that people who have experience practicing law in this area are somehow disqualified to serve on the FEC simply are wrong,” he added.

“I grew up in a legal tradition that lawyers are free to argue strenuously contested points of law for their clients.”

But Hebert of the Campaign Legal Center said Lenhard’s nomination set a “pretty low bar” for how ideological is too ideological for a prospective FEC commissioner, a standard now manifested by Bush’s choice of McGahn.

“I don’t think [Lenhard] really did enforce the law evenhandedly when he was on the commission,” Hebert said. “He was a party hack and that’s unfortunately what the FEC has become a dumping ground for.”

Other Democratic election-law attorneys who spoke with Roll Call on the condition of anonymity also attested to McGahn’s fitness to serve on for the panel. A Notre Dame graduate and career election law attorney, McGahn worked at Patton Boggs and has represented moderate causes and GOPers such as Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.) and the Tuesday Group Political Action Committee.

“Don McGahn is an outstanding campaign finance lawyer and has dealt with us on the opposing side with fairness and integrity and decency through the years,” one Democratic lawyer said.

The White House is asking the Senate to hold a vote on McGahn and the other nominees by Memorial Day.

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