Democratic Rep. Alan Mollohan has delivered for his West Virginia district for nearly three decades — steering millions of dollars in projects that have helped an anemic economy.
But such earmarking by a powerful member of the House Appropriations Committee has drawn scrutiny and stirred the anti-Washington fervor coursing through this year’s elections. Suddenly, Mollohan is facing his toughest challenge, his first contested primary since 1998.
His rival in Tuesday’s primary is state Sen. Mike Oliverio, who has criticized the agenda of President Barack Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. In a state where Republican presidential nominee John McCain won handily in 2008, that criticism has helped the 46-year-old financial adviser attract the support of some of West Virginia’s tea party supporters as well as former Mollohan allies.
“I think the voters in northern West Virginia have simply lost confidence in Congressman Mollohan,” Oliverio said.
Mollohan, 66, chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, was first elected to Congress in 1982, winning a seat that had been held by his father.
He’s campaigned on his ability to deliver federal funds to the 20-county district that borders Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania and includes West Virginia University in Morgantown. He has steered an estimated $480 million there from 1995 to 2006, according to the nonprofit Citizens Against Government Waste.
These earmarks, particularly those that benefited nonprofit organizations, prompted an investigation that also examined the rapid growth of Mollohan’s personal wealth. The Justice Department closed the case in January and filed no charges against Mollohan.
Oliverio continues to criticize Mollohan over past ethics allegations, even though the veteran lawmaker has not been charged with wrongdoing by either the House ethics committee or prosecutors.