The Magazine

Rep. Moran (D-Obnoxious)

The Virginia congressman cruises to reelection.

May 31, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 36 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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VIRGINIA CONGRESSMAN Jim Moran looks the part. He's tall, stands up straight, and speaks confidently with a northeastern brogue. He's got the preppy-D.C. thing down. At a Democratic "meet and greet" in Arlington recently, Moran arrived wearing a blue buttoned-down shirt monogrammed at the cuff, tucked into khaki pants, with brown deck shoes and no socks.

By the numbers, his district is one of the safest in the House. In 2000, his political security was buoyed by a Republican redistricting plan that crowded as many Democrats as possible into his district, and in his seven terms in Congress he's never faced a primary challenger. If he played by the rules he'd be a congressman for life.

Moran hasn't played by the rules, though. So far he's living proof that an incumbent can get away with almost anything and still win reelection. In 1995, during an argument on the House floor, Moran pushed Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham. On another occasion he threatened to punch Rep. Dan Burton in the nose. In 2000 he made news by taking an 8-year-old boy by the scruff of the neck in the parking lot at his daughter's day-care center, claiming the boy had tried to steal his car. The police were once called to break up an argument between him and his (now ex-) wife.

Besides the confrontations, there have been ethical and financial problems. He borrowed $25,000 from a drug company lobbyist five days before sponsoring legislation to help that lobbyist's client. And he took a $447,000 sweetheart loan from MBNA Corporation four days before endorsing legislation the company had pushed.

He's acknowledged that his reputation precedes him. Last summer, during testimony before the House Budget Committee, Moran told budget director Josh Bolten, "I am sure you're a nice guy. It's just that we've got a responsibility. You're probably a constituent, too. I run that risk. I have already ticked off most of them, so I might as well with you."

His most spectacular mistake may have come last year at a question-and-answer session with antiwar activists, when he told them that there would have been no war without Jewish support. "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this. The leaders of the Jewish community are influential enough that they could change the direction of where this is going, and I think they should."

Moran's campaign manager, Dan Lucas, says his comments were misunderstood. "He's a politician that obviously provokes strong emotion. . . . Obviously I don't think he's shown bad judgment."

His colleagues did. Moran apologized, but was reprimanded by Senate minority leader Tom Daschle and asked by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to step down from his elected leadership position as a regional whip. Six Jewish members called on him not to seek reelection this year and said they wouldn't support him.

Moran is seeking reelection anyway, but his behavior has attracted a challenger. Several prominent Democrats considered running against him, and decided to give it a pass. But Andy Rosenberg, a 36-year-old Virginia lawyer working for D.C. lobbying firm Patton Boggs, will take him on in the June 8 Democratic primary. "I'm running because Jim Moran is making headlines for all the wrong reasons," Rosenberg told me. "Virginia voters want someone who votes the right way and who makes sound judgment calls."

Rosenberg has voted for Moran in the past, and they differ little on the issues. At a May 1 debate, both opposed tax giveaways to the wealthy, expressed concern about power plant emissions, called for universal access to health care, and favored gay rights.

If anything, Rosenberg is running to Moran's left. At the debate he contrasted his endorsement by Americans for Democratic Action with Moran's endorsement by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The chamber of commerce, he said, is "committed to the Bush economic agenda, and they see a friend in Congressman Moran," while the ADA is a "liberal, progressive advocacy group."

Rosenberg also supports partial-birth abortion. Moran has voted to ban the procedure, although at the debate he said he had changed his mind. "I now believe it has got to be up to the woman." Rosenberg called the flip-flop an "election year conversion."

Though Rosenberg, a former aide to Senator Ted Kennedy, is a newcomer to electoral politics, he raised more money than Moran in the last quarter, and the two men's war chests are now about equal. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has refused to help Moran, whose job approval is down to 45 percent. In 2002, the Washington Post endorsed Moran's opponent, Scott Tate, in the general election.