Add this to Republican Curt Weldon’s long list of re-election woes — his very own October surprise. Earlier this week, FBI agents raided the homes of Weldon’s daughter and a close friend, part of an influence-peddling probe into the 10-term congressman and his daughter’s lobbying firm.
Weldon rarely faced a serious challenge in his previous races in his suburban Philadelphia district. From Marcus Hook, a grim former industrial town along the Delaware River, up through the county seat of Media and out past sprawling horse farms and upscale homes in Chester County, voters typically gave Weldon around 60 percent of the vote.
This year, dismay with the Iraq war and changing demographics in the suburbs have taken a toll. The FBI probe has left Weldon’s future in doubt just weeks before the Nov. 7 election.
“I think we’ve had enough of Mr. Weldon,” said Republican Jody Downer, 69, of Media, who works at nearby Swarthmore College. “I think after a while — no matter who it is — they get a little entrenched, and they’re not thinking about what might be good for the country or for the area.”
Federal prosecutors are investigating whether Weldon improperly helped foreign defense and energy companies that paid nearly $1 million to a lobbying company run by Karen Weldon and Weldon’s close friend, local Republican Party boss Charles P. Sexton Jr.
At a debate Friday, a combative Weldon used his opening statement to lash out at the reports about the probe.
“When the media has a liberal bias and attacks three of your five children, and you have no recourse except to accept their lies, there’s something wrong with the system,” said Weldon, who also criticized Democratic mailings on the issue, calling them “outrageous” and “un-American.”
None of the questions at the debate dealt with the FBI investigation.
While some voters fault Weldon for at least the appearance of a conflict, others question the FBI’s decision to raid Karen Weldon’s house and business at such a sensitive point in the campaign.
“People would rather vote him in, and see where the investigation goes,” said Bob Holt, 62, of Media, who likes Weldon and plans to vote for him.
Still, he’s among those scratching their heads over Monday’s raids, which followed a weekend of news leaks about the criminal investigation.
“If the Democrats were in power in Washington, I’d say it’s vindictive. But since the Republicans are in power, you think, ‘Maybe there’s something there,'” Holt said.
Even before news of the probe broke, Weldon appeared locked in a dead heat with Democrat Joe Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral who has called for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq.
Penn State Delaware County political science professor Steve Cimbala calls Weldon “a genius at constituent services” who has brought home federal funds, persuading the military to keep a Boeing plant in his backyard.
The Harvard-educated Sestak has a “gossamer resume” and a dynamic presence, he says.
“This is anybody’s race to win,” Cimbala said. “One thing nobody has the right to say is, ‘My vote doesn’t count.’ Anybody who says that is sitting on the moon.”
The district’s wealthy, outlying suburbs remain solidly Republican, but the inner-ring suburbs have been luring city-dwellers and trending Democratic since 1990. Democrats John Kerry and Al Gore both defeated George W. Bush in the district.
“You have to say you’re Republican in Delaware County if you want something done. But you don’t have to vote that way,” said Democrat Don Killian, 55, a pool-company employee from Aston.
Weldon and his wife live in leafy Glen Mills, in a $440,000 home they bought six years ago. The home is about 10 miles — but worlds away — from his roots as one of nine children of a Marcus Hook plant worker.
Cleveland A. Carroll, 58, went to high school with Weldon and later enjoyed some good years at Sun Ship, a once-bustling shipbuilder. But the only large employers within view of Marcus Hook today are a prison and a racetrack that will soon boast slots parlors.
“That’s the one thing I’m worried about, getting more jobs for the locals,” said Carroll, who was nursing a beer in a corner tavern. He lives in a rooming house and works odd jobs. His eyes grew big when he heard about Karen Weldon’s six-figure lobbying contracts.
“It’s tough to get a job,” Carroll said. “I’m still looking. I got applications in everyplace.”
Michael Maurone, a 50-year-old union worker, credits Weldon with saving his job at the Boeing helicopter plant. Weldon went to bat for the military’s V-22 Osprey aircraft program, which was in jeopardy after two deadly Marine crashes in 2000.
“I think Weldon’s a good man. He saved Boeing from closing. He’s a straight-shooter,” said Maurone, 50, a Republican. His union endorsed Weldon despite its usual ties to Democrats, he said.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press