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Scandal-tainted Illinois senator teetering on the edge


CHICAGO -- Polls are pointing toward what a poet has called the rare occurrence of the expected. Chicagoan Carol Moseley-Braun, 51, the first and only African-American woman senator, may be defeated.

Her opponent, Peter Fitzgerald, 37, is a conservative state senator from the Chicago suburbs, which cast about 40 percent of the state's vote. He is already even or ahead in some polls. He spent $7 million of his own money, from a family banking fortune, in winning the primary and has more money in his checking account, not to mention his campaign fund, than Ms. Moseley-Braun's campaign has.

A shaky start

In 1992, she won 53 percent of the vote against a Republican candidate who was weak even before he decided it would be a good idea to reverse himself on abortion, becoming pro-choice on the eve of the announcement of his candidacy. She won even though it was revealed that in 1989 she and her siblings split a $28,750 inheritance that was supposed to go to her mother, a nursing home resident who was supposed to use the money to reimburse Medicaid.

Chicago Democrats survive their scandals by multiplying them, hoping the unbroken monotony of misdeeds will anesthetize the public. But Ms. Moseley-Braun may have overdone it even after some notable campaign finance excesses in 1992.

Predictably, Attorney General Janet Reno's politicized Justice Department has twice refused Internal Revenue Service requests to impanel grand juries to hear evidence about Ms. Moseley-Braun. One would concern possible bank fraud, bribery and other federal crimes from when she was Cook County Recorder of Deeds.

The other would involve allegations that she and Kgosie Matthews, her former campaign manager and former fiance, may have diverted $281,000 in campaign contributions to personal consumption, such as (according to a WBBM-TV report in July) almost $70,000 on clothes, $64,000 on travel (Hawaii, Europe, Africa), $25,000 for two Jeeps, $12,000 for stereo equipment, $18,000 for jewelry (she and he spent almost $10,000 in cash at an Aspen jewelry store during a fund-raising trip).

Where's Justice?

A former federal prosecutor and tax-law expert told WBBM that in 28 years of experience he had never heard of Justice refusing "when you have the Internal Revenue Service as an institution making a request to the Justice Department for grand jury authorization." "Never," said a former IRS supervisor when WBBM asked if he had ever seen a precedent for such refusal.

Mr. Matthews has been a lobbyist for the Nigerian government. On one of Ms. Moseley-Braun's many visits to Nigeria, she met with the blood-soaked dictator Gen. Sani Abacha, who died in June. In 1996, she disagreed with the Congressional Black Caucus by opposing sanctions against Nigeria. WBBM says the IRS is asking for a grand jury to investigate Mr. Matthews for

conspiracy, mail fraud and wire fraud. He owes $250,000 to a travel agency and no longer lives in the United States.

The conventional wisdom here is that the crucial swing vote is middle-class suburban women, with whom Mr. Fitzgerald's pro-life position will be a problem. But on primary night, while Ms. Moseley-Braun was warming up her crowd with warnings that pro-life politicians are menaces to womanhood, the gubernatorial primary produced a Democratic nominee, downstate congressman Glenn Poshard, who is pro-life.

Mr. Fitzgerald dryly suggested that Ms. Moseley-Braun have a debate with Mr. Poshard. Democrats are hoping for synergy, with Ms. Moseley-Braun helping Mr. Poshard in Chicago and he helping her downstate.

Mr. Fitzgerald has to heal a Republican Party divided by the primary fight in which Gov. Jim Edgar and most of the Republican establishment, with the help of Bob Dole, supported Mr. Fitzgerald's opponent, Loleta Didrickson, the state BTC comptroller, who is pro-choice. It is a measure of the establishment's skittishness and disconnection from reality that it is alarmed by Mr. Fitzgerald, whose anti-abortion position is, says political analyst Charles Cook, shared by "the overwhelming majority of Republicans in Congress."

The fact that both the candidates for governor (the GOP nominee is Secretary of State George Ryan) and Mr. Fitzgerald are anti-abortion may take the abortion issue off the table. If the issue is argued in terms of who opposes partial-birth abortions, Mr. Fitzgerald, not Ms. Moseley-Braun, will speak for the Illinois majority.

In presidential politics, Illinois is the bellwether state, having voted with the winner in all but two elections in this century. (It voted for Republicans Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 and Gerald Ford in 1976.) This year Illinois is central to Republican hopes of gaining the five Senate seats necessary for a filibuster-proof majority of 60. That is not yet expected, but Illinois' contribution to it may soon be rated probable.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/06/98

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