Ethics questions unlikely to derail Congressman Andrews re-election

Facing investigations by the Federal Elections Commission and the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Ethics over allegations he improperly spent campaign funds for personal use, Rep. Rob Andrews, D-1st, is being forced to divert part of his attention in the weeks leading up to Election Day to defending his actions instead of campaigning.

Yet though the controversy has cost him at minimum the more than $30,000 he voluntarily repaid to his campaign fund and political action committee, political observers feel certain the ethics charges will not cost the overwhelmingly popular Democrat election to his 12th term in his solidly “blue” South Jersey district, even though he faces three opponents.

“The allegations haven’t turned into specific charges. It’s not a big issue (for voters) right now,” said Daniel Douglas, director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. In late August, the House ethics committee released a 244-page Office of Congressional Ethics preliminary report that found an Andrews family trip to a wedding in Scotland not to be a “bona fide campaign or political expense” and concluded that he had “improperly” directed campaign funds to other personal activities.

The report also noted that Andrews’ wife, Camille, an associate dean of the Rutgers-Camden law school, acted as his campaign’s compliance officer, ruling on what campaign disbursements were and were not appropriate. It is legal for her to serve in this capacity, although congressional watchdogs say it raises conflict-of-interest questions and further exposes him to accusations of nepotism.

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Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the nonprofit that first raised the potential spending improprieties with the Federal Election Commission (FEC), released an indicting statement after the announcement.

“Given how tough House rules are about the misuse of campaign funds — much more stringent than Federal Election Commission regulations — even the notoriously lax Ethics Committee will have trouble letting Rep. Andrews off the hook,” Sloan said. “While the inquiry undoubtedly will drag on for months, it’s hard to fathom a scenario in which Rep. Andrews walks away from this unscathed.

CREW lists Andrews as among its top 12 most corrupt members of Congress, for reasons that include contributing campaign funds and earmarking public dollars to his wife’s place of work.

Even as the House ethics committee announced it would continue its informal investigation, Andrews denies any wrongdoing and asserts that he would not have known the groom whose wedding he attended in Scotland were it not for the groom’s volunteer work on behalf of his campaign.

In a statement released last month in response to the ethics office’s findings, Andrews asserted, “As the Committee continues its review, the record will show that I have followed all rules and met all standards of the House.” He previously said no taxpayer money was used for the trip.

“I followed every law and disclosed every dollar,” Andrews told NJ Spotlight before the primary election last June.

But that’s not keeping his opponents from wielding the controversy as a weapon against him. In a statement released just after the ethics committee’s decision, Republican challenger Greg Horton, a flat-tax proponent from Haddonfield, said Andrews’ decision-making demonstrates an overall disconnect in Washington that cries for more responsible leadership.

“Rob Andrews has become the poster child of what is wrong with Washington, D.C., and the out-of-touch politicians that habitually fail to rein our ever-expanding government,” wrote Horton, who did not respond to requests for an interview. Andrews’ two independent challengers, Reform Party candidate Margaret Chapman and Green Party candidate John Reitter, echoed the “out-of-touch” sentiment.

“I just feel our politicians have lost touch, and if they don’t talk to the people, how can they represent the people?” said Chapman.

But John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, said these arguments aren’t likely to resonate with voters, who he said have a high threshold for dishonesty in their incumbent candidates and who vote primarily on issues and party allegiances versus character.

“The character of the candidate is a nice bonus,” he explained. “They know when they vote they’re not anointing someone for sainthood.”

Where Andrews may feel the impact slightly, Weingart said, is in the overall vote count – a total that will dip if a small number of Democrats choose to protest his behavior by pulling the lever for an opponent or not voting for the congressional seat at all. But those numbers will be small and inconsequential, he said, compared with the number of voters who might punish Andrews if he one day chooses to run again for statewide office, as he did in 1997 and 2008.

A high school athletic director, Horton, 46, serves as a Camden County GOP Committee Member Co-Chair for Haddonfield. He ran unsuccessfully for state legislative office last year. He calls himself an “American Commoner” and supports term limits, limiting campaign contributions, tort reform and “freedom from a biased media,” according to his website.

Chapman is a 56-year-old legal secretary from Pine Hill with an associate degree and a belief that “we’re put on this earth to help people.”

Reitter, 71, is a retired tour operator and spends so much time volunteering he’s made it his profession. He is a self-described college dropout from Glassboro and a recent Democratic émigré who said he feels betrayed by President Obama’s acceptance of lobbyists into his administration. Reitter is running under the Green Party banner with the message that his party advocates for issues that go far beyond the environmental platform on which it was founded.

“Even though I’m in the Green Party, I want people to know that it isn’t just about hugging trees. It’s about women’s rights, workers’ rights, and children’s rights,” he said.

As the only mainstream party opponent, Horton has greater resources than the other two challengers, though his fundraising trails far behind the incumbent’s. As of June 30, Horton had raised less than $3,000, compared with Andrews’ more than $1 million. Neither of the third-party candidates had raised more than the $5,000 FEC threshold for mandatory reporting, although Chapman maintains that she’s doing more campaigning with her nearly nonexistent funds than is Horton with his thousands.

“A lot of his interaction has been with the Republican clubs,” she said.

By contrast, she said, she’s been trying to build name recognition by planting trees, speaking at organized functions and crisscrossing the district with the message that she’s a populist, just a regular person.

“I’m not paid politician. I’m not supported by party bosses. I’ve had tax issues and health insurance scares. I’ve had to worry about my retirement and my investments just like everyone else in this district,” said Chapman, who has run twice against Andrews as an independent.

She and Reitter decry their shared disadvantage in reaching the public as third-party candidates, with little money and no debates scheduled. Access could boost their chances, they say, given the left-leaning values they espouse reflect those of a majority of their would-be constituents.

The district is almost entirely urban, covering most of Camden County, the northern and western half of Gloucester and two slivers of Burlington. Its voter rolls tally nearly three times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. It became even more solidly Democratic after last year’s redistricting transferred socially liberal Cherry Hill out of the 3rd District and into the 1st. The district contains many white-collar communities that both feed working professionals into Philadelphia and contribute to the growth of South Jersey’s high-tech economy. About a third of the population holds a college degree or higher, and the average home value exceeds $222,000. The 1st derives much of its Democratic heritage from its working- and lower-class voters. The post-industrial cities of Gloucester and Camden are population centers with heavy concentrations of Latinos and African-Americans. A number of union-friendly labor towns dot its western border with the Delaware River.

Douglas said the district’s population has always viewed its long-time representative favorably, ensuring the incumbent’s seat for as long as he wants it.

“Andrews is generally regarded as providing good constituent services,” he said. “He’s faced number of opponents over the years and none of them have even come close.”

Indeed, Andrews beat his primary challenger, Francis Tenaglio, by a margin of 88 percent to 12 percent, and in 2010, he won re-election with 63 percent of the vote. Margaret Chapman, the only current opponent to have previously challenged him, wound up with less than 1 percent of the vote two years ago.

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