Griffith Still Has Democrats’ Cash

Posted April 20, 2010 at 6:51pm

A message for Congressional Democrats who contributed to Rep. Parker Griffith (R-Ala.) last year before he bolted the party: If you want your money back, you have to ask.

The man who enraged Democrats in late December by announcing his decision to become a Republican is still sitting on $20,000 in campaign contributions from Democratic lawmakers.

According to Griffith’s campaign, it’s money that Democratic donors simply have not asked him to return. “The Griffith Campaign has returned contributions to any individual or political action committee that made a contribution for the 2010 election and requested that they be returned,” Heather Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Griffith campaign, said in a statement.

The list of contributors that Griffith has so far not refunded includes some unlikely supporters for a man now trying to battle through a three-way Republican primary. He’s still got money from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who cut a $2,000 check from his leadership PAC last January; Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), who contributed $2,000 from her campaign account; Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a close confidante of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) who gave him $1,000 from her campaign; and House Science and Technology Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who forked over $1,000 each from his leadership PAC and campaign account, federal election records show.

The money has been an issue for Griffith as he has struggled to prove to home-state conservatives that he will be a loyal soldier for his new party. Some conservative groups have demanded he return the money that he raised as a Democrat before running in the June 1 GOP primary, where he faces stiff competition from Madison County Commissioner Mo Brooks and businessman Les Phillip.

Griffith has already given back a sizable chunk of Democratic donations. In all, his party switch so far has cost him more than $110,000 in checks that he’s returned to Democratic donors and their allies. That has put a dent in his war chest. The freshman lawmaker closed the first quarter with $412,000 in cash on hand, though that still put him comfortably out front of his competitors in terms of resources. Brooks ended that period with $214,000, and Phillip finished with $71,000.

But in a broader sense, the awkward dance that Griffith has performed with his finances highlights his struggle to complete his partisan realignment. Critics back home have charged him with switching teams out of political expediency, and his Republican challengers are likewise raising questions about his conservative bona fides.

Of the sum that Griffith has returned so far, about $49,000 has gone back to donors in his northern Alabama district, K Street Democrats, and a handful of left-leaning labor unions and trade associations such as the American Association for Justice, the trial lawyer’s lobby.

But the bulk — $61,000 — has gone to Democratic lawmakers. Some of those refunds were more painful than others: Griffith coughed up $10,000 each to the PACs of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.) and the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, of which he was a member before abandoning the Democratic ranks. To Pelosi’s PAC and her re-election campaign he gave back an additional $7,000.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.) made three transfers of $1,000 each from his re-election campaign to Griffith’s over the course of last year but got only $2,000 back from his one-time Democratic colleague in early January. Barry Feldman, campaign treasurer for the No. 4 House Democratic leader, said he isn’t aware of any specific request that Larson made for a refund in the first place. But he confirmed that after questions from Roll Call, he asked the Griffith campaign to return the remaining $1,000.

Likewise, Colin Strother, a spokesman for Rep. Henry Cuellar’s (D-Texas) campaign, said he would ask the Griffith camp to return a $1,000 check that Cuellar cut him in March of last year. “Obviously, the money was given under a certain pretense,” Strother said. “I’m sure he’s a perfectly nice guy, but the Congressman didn’t give him $1,000 because he’s a nice guy. He gave it to him because he was a member of the [Democratic] Caucus.”

Griffith has declined to refund contributions that he received during the 2008 election cycle, explaining that those funds have already been spent. But he made an exception to the policy when, in March, he announced he would cut a check to a local veterans memorial foundation for $7,000 — the amount he received during the last cycle from scandal-tinged Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.). That move came as Congressional Republicans were hammering Democrats to flush their accounts of contributions from Rangel, who had recently given up the Ways and Means Committee chairmanship under an ethical cloud.

Despite the anger that most Democrats felt over the Griffith switch, not all Members are demanding refunds. Gordon, who isn’t seeking re-election this fall and under whom Griffith served on the Science and Technology Committee before jumping, will not ask for a refund, his spokeswoman said. She declined to offer an explanation. And as for Emanuel, a White House aide said his leadership PAC is not active while he serves in the administration “and therefore he has not asked for the contribution back and does not have any plans at this time to ask for it back. Whether the contribution is returned or not will be left up to Rep. Griffith’s conscience.”