Ohio's not-so-mean Jean Schmidt

The congresswoman who called Jack Murtha a coward runs for her life against her own dragon-lady image.

Published November 2, 2006 1:15PM (EST)

Republican Jean Schmidt, who narrowly won a high-profile special election to Congress last year, can be warm and engaging in person. But mention Iraq, and Schmidt -- now locked in a tight reelection battle in a normally safe GOP district -- loses her ability to modulate her rhetoric.

Last November, in one of her first debates on the House floor, Schmidt blundered into the Hall of Shame when she implied that Pennsylvania Democrat Jack Murtha, a decorated Marine veteran and one of the leading foreign policy voices in Congress, was a "coward" for advocating withdrawal from Iraq. Monday night at a local Republican ward committee meeting at the Kona Bistro here, Schmidt responded to a friendly question about Iraq with the kind of simplistic comparison that even Dick Cheney's speechwriters have long abandoned. "There is enormous potential there," Schmidt began, "the kind of potential that we saw in 1776."

Recalling her congressional visit to the Valley Forge of the Mideast in January, she burbled about the potential of Iraqi agriculture ("The fertile crescent is Babylonia if you've studied biblical history") and business ("Right now, they're working to have their own stock market"). Gesturing enthusiastically with her hands, Schmidt painted a bird's-eye view of Baghdad. "When I was in the Blackhawk helicopter, which is the safest way to go there," she said, "you notice on every rooftop satellite dishes ... Over there, if you want Home Box Office, you have to get your own satellite dish for the channel." Presumably, more Iraqi TVs are tuned to real scenes of carnage on al-Jazeera than the faux carnage of "The Sopranos."

In the heat of the political season, it is easy to portray the 54-year-old Schmidt in cartoonish terms. But stereotyping would gloss over her eagerness to be liked and the vulnerability she displays on non-political topics. A question about her passion for running marathons (she has competed in 61) immediately flowed into an answer about how she turned to running for consolation after the death of her mother in 1991. Every morning, she explained, she runs six miles and then attends Catholic mass. As she put it, "Sometimes, the Lord sees me in sweats. Sometimes he sees me like this."

In this case, Schmidt, a small woman, was wearing a black pantsuit with her dark hair tightly wound into a bun fastened with a black ribbon. She was perched on a banquette at the Kona Bistro, trying to dispel the widespread impression that she is the new dragon lady of GOP politics. "I'm not," she said, with an edge of hurt in her soft voice. "I think the media wouldn't mind someone less vocal about representing her district."

Schmidt's Democratic opponent, Victoria Wulsin, is currently running a commercial on Cincinnati TV with the tag line "You Deserve Better," which features footage of the House debate in which Schmidt charged, "Send Congressman Murtha a message: Cowards cut and run. Marines never do." Small wonder that there was a weariness and wariness in Schmidt's tone as she responded to my predictable questions about the incident. "I would have changed the words," she said. "I would have been more artful. But never the message, because we can't pull out."

When I persisted, she protested, "I don't want to go down that road. I've been down it too often. But if you check the mood, it was the straw that broke the camel's back." Those last words were somewhat cryptic. In the context of the conversation, they seemed to refer both to Schmidt's reputed ignorance of Murtha's Marine background and the lasting damage that one-minute speech did to Schmidt's political reputation.

If Wulsin were a hard-edged politician instead of an M.D. with a Ph.D. in public health who's been running an AIDS prevention agency and has never held elective office, she would be reveling in Schmidt's continuing discomfort over the Murtha outburst. Instead the 53-year-old Wulsin, who may be too earnest and idealistic for prime-time politics, said, "It wasn't easy [to run the ad] because I felt that Schmidt has failed us in so many more important ways than making us embarrassed on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. But to do that in 30 seconds is too difficult."

Wulsin and I were talking in the food court at the suburban EastGate shopping mall on Tuesday night, where she had been enthusiastically campaigning among the parents of children who were displaying their Halloween costumes at the 21st century version of the town square. Wulsin was wearing a cherry red suit, while the fidgety 8-year-old at the next table was bedecked in angel wings.

I asked the challenger whether the "I'm a Christian and a Democrat" bumper sticker on the back of her minivan had been pasted on for the congressional campaign. Wulsin, an Episcopalian, explained that she had put it on her car in 2004 out of frustration with Catholic attacks on John Kerry for supporting abortion rights.

Then Wulsin made a comment that would be peculiar for any House candidate a week away from an election that may determine control of Congress, but especially for a Democrat who supports setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. "I'm proud to be a Democrat," she said. "But I want to be less of a Democrat in Congress because most of my district does not consider themselves Democrats. Most of my district considers themselves independents. To represent my district, I have to be part-Democrat, part-Republican and part-independent."

In a normal year, Ohio's second district, which rambles east from Cincinnati and its suburbs into rural farmland, would be impossible terrain for a Democrat. George W. Bush carried the district with 64 percent of the vote in 2004. Had the district's longtime Republican incumbent Rob Portman not entered the Bush administration in 2005 (he is now the director of the Office of Management and Budget), there would be virtually no contest this year.

But Schmidt, a former state legislator, who had to survive a bitter primary and a special election in 2005 plus another bruising primary challenge this year, is not a typical Republican incumbent. Paul Hackett, a militantly antiwar Iraq veteran, won 48 percent of the vote against Schmidt in the August 2005 contest to fill Portman's vacant seat. Wulsin, who lost the 2005 Democratic primary in her first bid for office, stepped into the void this time around when Hackett tried and failed to win the Senate nomination.

Nearly tapped out after her nonstop gauntlet of campaigns, Schmidt is an example of that rarely glimpsed political species, the underfunded Republican incumbent. With scant congressional seniority, lingering wounds from her intraparty primaries, and a damaged reputation after the Murtha flap, Schmidt is a hard sell for GOP fundraisers. As a result, at a time when Republican incumbents are spending upward of $4 million to defend their seats, Schmidt is trying to make do with a $500,000 campaign. Wulsin, who had raised about $600,000 according to her campaign's mid-October report to the Federal Election Commission, is in slightly better financial shape. In fact, Wulsin said, she had collected $42,000 in checks on Tuesday in the biggest single-day financial haul of her campaign. It is, however, difficult to effectively spend money this late in the political season since there is virtually no television time available.

Watching Cincinnati television and switching channels for 90 minutes Wednesday morning, I walked into the nonstop rat-a-tat of attack ads from multiple House races. Steve Chabot, the imperiled GOP incumbent in Ohio's Cincinnati-centered 1st District, traded angry charges with John Cranley, his Democratic rival. Across the Ohio River in Kentucky's 4th District, Republican Geoff Davis is running a scorched-earth campaign against former Democratic Rep. Ken Lucas, who is mounting a comeback after retiring from Congress. But on Cincinnati television, Jean Schmidt was invisible. The only time I saw the congresswoman's face was in a single showing of the Wulsin ad highlighting the Murtha speech.

What I missed was perhaps the only lighthearted anti-gay marriage commercial of this political cycle. Schmidt is currently airing a spot with bouncy music and cartoon thought bubbles that begins with an off-screen female voice asking in a bemused rather than angry tone, "What will Victoria Wulsin think of next? How about legalizing gay marriage?" The ad then quotes from a series of statements that Wulsin has made on the issue, though it is unclear whether her words refer to gay marriage or far less controversial civil unions. When I asked Wulsin to explain her position on gay marriage, the candidate led me through a deep thicket of run-on sentences and passive verbs before finally saying flatly, "My district is not ready for that. I'm not going to push that as part of my agenda."

If Wulsin had the money and the time - both formidable ifs - she might respond to the Schmidt ad with a lighthearted spot of her own that would begin, "What will Jean Schmidt think of next? How about storing used nuclear fuel rods in the 2nd District?"

The Cincinnati Enquirer reported Sunday that Schmidt was actively supporting an effort by two private companies to win a $5 million Department of Energy contract to study the merits of storing and recycling nuclear waste in rural Pike County. Monday night at the Kona Bistro a concerned Republican asked Schmidt if the story was true. The congresswoman gave a rambling answer in which she alternately argued that she was responding to local constituents; that she merely supported a government study, not a nuclear waste dump; and that it would be shortsighted to turn down $5 million in federal money. But nothing Schmidt said in her defense could match the political potency of this news lead from the Enquirer: "This doesn't happen every day: An incumbent member of Congress, in the middle of a re-election battle, says that storing nuclear waste shipments from around the world in her district may be a good idea."

There are few reliable polls available in the 2nd District. A survey taken last week by Majority Watch showed Schmidt leading by a 51-to-45 percent margin, which is a tie given the poll's 3 percent margin of error. (As a veteran political reporter, I remain leery of Majority Watch's methodology, which uses voice-recognition software rather than human interviewers.) Other indicators suggest that Wulsin remains a long shot, given the difficult terrain of the district even in a big Democratic year in Ohio. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- which is heavily investing in Cranley's and Lucas' races -- has not advertised on Wulsin's behalf. Also Wulsin, who always refers to the contest as a "tight race," admitted in our interview that she regretted following the advice of political professionals to try to replace her volunteer base with paid staff after she won the primary. As she put it, "If I had invested in more volunteers earlier, I would have a stronger volunteer army now."

Campaigning outside a Kroger's grocery store in a mixed-income Cincinnati neighborhood Tuesday afternoon, Wulsin kept repeating her mantra, "I'm running for Congress against Jean Schmidt - and I want to represent everyone." Often Wulsin would end her appeal with an unusual and surprising bent-knee curtsy, which she explained that she learned during her three years in Africa working on public-health projects. When I guessed that Wulsin would love an extra two weeks to campaign, she sighed wistfully, "Oh, that's so true. People are finally getting interested in the race."

Schmidt, for her part, is awash with Republican celebrities, who are in the area also to campaign for other candidates. Retiring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, looking like a TV game-show host with a light plaid gray sport jacket and open-neck shirt, said a few non-memorable words on her behalf in suburban Batavia Monday morning. Ken Mehlman, the national Republican chairman, spoke at her campaign headquarters on Tuesday afternoon. Mehlman, who ran Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, said, "It's very likely - very possible certainly - that the outcome of this election will again come down to Ohio."

At the Mehlman event, I found myself chatting with Michelle Schneider, a state representative who shared an apartment in Columbus with Schmidt when both women were in the Legislature. Could you imagine back then, I asked, that Schmidt would be regarded as one of the most polarizing figures in the Republican Party? "Never, never," Schneider replied. "The Murtha thing - she didn't mean it the way it sounded. She didn't mean that Murtha is a coward. I know Jean, she's never called anyone a name. She would never do that to a veteran."

Hearing these comments, I was reminded of Schmidt's own valedictory at the conclusion of our formal interview. She lamented the "misperceptions" that surround her. The most notorious freshman Republican in Congress -- the woman who had ventured far out of her depth in attacking Jack Murtha -- said, "I really care. I'm really kind. And I have a good heart." Then she added the three final words that harked right back to the battle-ready partisanship that had gotten her into trouble: "But I'm tough."

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

MORE FROM Walter Shapiro

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2006 Elections