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Sen. Moseley-Braun Hindered by Own Missteps

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a brutal three-way primary, Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun won her Senate seat in November 1992 with relative ease. No one expected her bid for reelection this fall to be quite as simple. But no one expected it to be like this.

There was First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton declaring: “I’m giving Carol another chance.” There was a Democratic state legislator from Illinois saying: “I’m feeling [Moseley-Braun’s campaign] turning around.” And there was Moseley-Braun herself, intoning about getting “over the hump.”

The comments seemed all the more urgent because they were delivered not during especially tough interviews or debates, but to 650 die-hard Moseley-Braun supporters at a recent $50-for-coffee fund-raiser.

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The first African American woman in the Senate, Moseley-Braun has found herself in a dead heat with a little-known millionaire banker whose staunchly conservative views have even some Republican stalwarts campaigning against him.

She is sharp, eloquent and has a smile so engaging that it is still a topic of coffee-shop conversation after six years in national politics, but Moseley-Braun has been embroiled in one controversy after another--the first coming two months before she even took office. And with two days to go, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch poll shows her neck and neck with Peter Fitzgerald, a state representative.

Despite her near-celebrity status, Moseley-Braun’s campaign has begun to operate like that of a longshot challenger, with the senator holding “debates” with Fitzgerald, although he refuses to attend them.

The first lady or President Clinton, meanwhile, have come to town almost weekly in an effort to help her counter Fitzgerald’s personal wealth.

For Moseley-Braun supporters, a Fitzgerald win would mean more than the forfeiture of a Democratic seat to the GOP, which would like to increase its 55-45 majority, although a filibuster-proof 60-40 seems unlikely. It would also represent the unseating of just the second African American senator this century and a politician who was widely viewed as a potential trailblazer for other minority candidates.

“I think if she loses, we as a nation will lose an extremely important voice in American politics,” said Hilary Shelton, acting director of the Washington chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. “Diversity of thought has always been seen as part of the genius of our political system. But the Senate has always fallen behind in that diversity.”

Others contend Moseley-Braun, 51, brought more controversy to the hallowed halls of the Senate than diversity of thought or legislation. And, they say, although her race, her gender and her swiftness with a sound-bite may have subjected her to a brighter spotlight than that shined on the average freshman senator, she brought her current campaign troubles on herself.

“We attributed a lot of qualities to her that she didn’t really have--mainly political acumen,” said Kenneth Janda, a professor of political science at Northwestern University. “She just did a lot of really dumb things.

“She got elected on personal characteristics,” Janda added, “and it appears she [could] lose it on personal characteristics.”

In 1992, Moseley-Braun, a former federal prosecutor and onetime state legislator, held the relatively humble position of Cook County recorder of deeds. Politically ambitious, she concluded that a well-planned campaign that combined Chicago’s considerable black vote with the vote of suburban women could unseat 40-year Senate veteran Alan Dixon.

In the primary, Dixon and trial lawyer Al Hofeld pummeled each other. Moseley-Braun stayed “below the fray,” as one longtime Chicago Democratic strategist put it at the time, and took the primary. By September, Moseley-Braun had become a media darling and one of the women to watch in what was shaping up to be the “Year of the Woman.” Her support had grown so strong that she was able to weather her first scandal two months before the election, when it became public that in 1989 she and her siblings had split a $28,750 timber royalty owed to her mother, who was in a nursing home, rather than use the money to reimburse Medicaid for her mother’s care.

In her first term, Moseley-Braun has achieved some legislative accomplishments, observers agree, many in support of Illinois business and agricultural interests. With the exception of a stalled initiative that would lend federal support to the repair of dilapidated school buildings, she has seldom been a leading voice on national issues.

Any accomplishments, however, have time and again been upstaged by disorganization in her office, missed appearances and scandal. Being so frequently on the defensive, Moseley-Braun concedes, has hurt her.

The Federal Election Commission found that 138 contributors to her 1992 campaign exceeded the $1,000 limit, and about $249,000 in campaign expenditures could not be accounted for.

In 1995, the Justice Department twice declined requests by the Internal Revenue Service to open a criminal investigation into charges that Moseley-Braun and her then-boyfriend Kgosie Matthews spent the campaign funds on jewelry, clothes and vacation travel.

She was accused of ignoring charges that Matthews was sexually harassing female campaign workers.

In the summer of 1996, she and Matthews traveled to Nigeria and met with Gen. Sani Abacha, the dictator of that country who died this year. That trip drew the wrath of human rights groups, the State Department and even Chicago’s Democratic mayor, Richard M. Daley.

The trip was “a monumental gaffe,” said one longtime Chicago political analyst.

It was a gaffe Mrs. Clinton was still trying to diminish when, at the recent fund-raiser, she compared choosing a Senate candidate to choosing a surgeon, and noted that if the surgeon had a good record with his patients, “I would not ask him where he spent any of his summer vacations.”

In September, down in the polls, Moseley-Braun lashed out after a critical piece by conservative columnist George Will and found herself on the defensive yet again after saying, “George Will can just take his hood and go back to wherever he came from.”

From the state Democratic convention in Springfield in August to a recent gathering of motorcyclists opposed to helmet laws in the north Chicago suburbs, Moseley-Braun has been imploring voters to support her based on her legislative record.

But her missteps have had far more staying power than her record, Janda said. “These are the things people understand, more than if she was to take a certain position on NAFTA,” the North American Free Trade Agreement, he said. “She and her sister maybe took some money from Medicaid. People understand that. She maybe used some campaign money for jewelry. People understand that.”

Down in the polls throughout the campaign, even Moseley-Braun’s harshest critics were not ready to write off a telegenic incumbent known for her scrappiness until a week ago, when her campaign seemed hopelessly stalled and another poll had her behind by 14 percentage points. At that point, it became difficult to find many who gave her a chance.

“She was a symbol when she was elected, both as an accomplished African American politician and an accomplished female politician,” said Mark Hansen, professor of political science at the University of Chicago. “And I think it’s hard for a real human being to measure up to a symbol.”


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