IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Anti-incumbent mood challenges W.Va. Dem

Suddenly, Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., is facing his first contested primary since 1998.
Alan Mollohan, Barack Obama, Joe Manchin
Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., speaks as then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, and Gov. Joe Manchin, right, listen during a news conference in Charleston, W.Va. in this 2006 photo.Jeff Gentner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 partiers as well as former Mollohan allies.

"I think the voters in northern West Virginia have simply lost confidence in Congressman Mollohan," Oliverio said. "They've lost confidence in his ability to conduct himself and his affairs in Washington in a proper manner."

Mollohan, 66, is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science. He was first elected to Congress in 1982, winning a seat that had been held by his father, Robert Mollohan.

The congressman has 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.

Mollohan calls Oliverio dishonest for focusing on the ethics probe, citing the outcome.

"I'm not running against a fair-minded person," Mollohan said. "The only dishonesty in this campaign comes from my opponent, who knows I was exonerated by the Justice Department. ... It's a tactic which he pursues, ignoring an outstanding record of service."

Jo Boley of Vienna cited the federal funds that Mollohan has brought to the district to explain her support for him.

"I like what he's done so far," the 42-year-old food services worker said. "I think he has the better chance, and the more proven track record."

Kathy Smith, 52, also plans to vote for the incumbent because of his service. The Parkersburg homemaker fondly recalls the time he hosted her daughter's church choir group during a trip to the U.S. Capitol.

But while retiree Mike Hull has supported Mollohan in past elections, he said he won't this time.

"I'd like to see change, to be honest with you," said Hull, 66, who worked for the Ames Tool Co. "It's mostly the economy for me, and our government."

Mollohan voted for Obama's health care law, which he considers a landmark achievement. That vote cost him long-standing support from the National Right to Life and its West Virginia division, which fear the law will allow federal dollars for abortion. Both have endorsed Oliverio.

Sarah Palin's political action committee made Mollohan one of 20 incumbents on its hit list. So has the Tea Party Express.

Mollohan also was a last-minute vote against federal "cap and trade" legislation, a critical issue in coal mining West Virginia.

While Mollohan ultimately opposed the proposed limits on such greenhouse gases a carbon released by burning coal, Oliverio says it was too little, too late. Mollohan said that ignores efforts by him and other coalfield lawmakers to lessen the blow to mining and coal-fired utilities through offset credits for utilities and federal funds to explore clean coal technologies.