Saturday, October 21, 2006

NYT on the 20th

From the NY Times on Oct. 20th:

New York’s 20 District: Already facing an increasingly tough race against Democratic first-time candidate Kirsten Gillibrand, Republican Rep. John E. Sweeney has had to deal with allegations that he may have failed to properly report a trip to the U.S. territory of Northern Mariana Islands that was funded by a colleague of now-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. [Note: The "colleague" was Abramoff's right-hand man and has pleaded guilty for corrupt lobbying too.]

There are no allegations that Sweeney broke laws. But the story plays into the hands of Democrats who are trying to make a national campaign issue of what they allege is a Republican “culture of corruption” — and particularly for Gillibrand, who has made ethics a centerpiece of her campaign since she entered the race.

The development could be a particularly volatile issue, as Abramoff’s representation of the Northern Marianas in efforts to waive parts of federal labor law is one of the most controversial aspects of Abramoff’s career as a congressional influence peddler.

The Northern Mariana Islands have been the focus of investigations of alleged human rights abuses surrounding its textile and clothing industries, and the suggestion that Sweeney accepted a junket funded by Abramoff’s company could be damaging to Sweeney’s hopes of holding off a Gillibrand campaign that has been surging.

Democrats were quick to jump on the allegations — among them California Rep. George Miller, who has spent more than a decade working against alleged sweatshops, forcible prostitution and human rights abuses on the islands.

Miller told reporters that the trip in which Sweeney had participated was part of Abramoff’s plan to develop “a cheering section” for Mariana Islands government and its garment industry, and to tamp down calls for reform in Congress.

Democrats argued that Sweeney failed to follow congressional ethics rules when he did not declare the lobbyist-funded trip. But the congressman said he originally believed the trip was paid for by the Mariana Islands government and thus did not need to be disclosed.

Sweeney campaign spokeswoman Maureen Donovan said she found the timing of the news reports about the matter “curious.”

“That’s a trip that happened five years ago and the congressman has been very clear . . . he always makes a good faith effort to report what he’s supposed to,” she said.

Underscoring the risk in relying even on independent polls to determine the outcomes of competitive House races, two recent surveys on the 20th District race reported vastly different results.

Majority Watch, a bipartisan polling project that uses automated phone calls to survey voters, released a poll this week that indicated Gillibrand held a 13 percentage-point lead over Sweeney, 54 percent to 41 percent, in the 20th.

The Gillibrand campaign trumpeted the poll, which also found stronger support for Gillibrand among voters in the southern half of the sprawling district, located mainly in the upper Hudson River Valley. The challenger held a 15-point lead among those voters, and a 12-point lead among voters in the upper half of the district, which includes Saratoga.

But a poll released Thursday by the Siena Research Institute showed Sweeney with a big 14 percentage-point lead over Gillibrand, 53 percent to 39 percent, though that was down from a 19-point lead in August.

The survey indicated that Gillibrand has been successful in raising questions about Sweeney — 35 percent of respondents had a negative impression of the congressman, up from 29 percent in August. . . .

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