This past Sunday, the local newspaper endorsed the incumbent Congressman John Sweeney against his challenger Kirsten Gillibrand. Throughout his career in politics, Sweeney has repeatedly behaved in ways that raise questions about his character — incidents suggestive of problems with alcohol, a variety of questionable fundraising and lobbying practices, and violent behavior — including a report of domestic violence in December 2005. He has never, however, been charged with any specific crime.
He did, though, rise within the Republican-controlled Congress. As the endorsing editorial noted, he held a position of power that could benefit bringing home the bacon to his district. And, with regard to Iraq, the endorsing editors noted that, while Sweeney has voted with Bush, he had recently questioned the wisdom of some of the choices made by the Bush Administration.
On the other hand, the endorsing editors went on to point out Ms. Gillibrand had lived much of her adult life outside the Congressional district and had failed to run for a more local office.
The day after the endorsement, a group of leaders met with the endorsing editors to criticize their choice — mostly because of Sweeney’s domestic violence incident — an incident that Sweeney first denied, then acknowledged, then denied, then acknowledged, then refused to cooperate with.
The endorsing editors told their visitors that, while they appreciated their concern, they believed they had made the correct endorsement because Sweeney has not been charged with any crime.
So, there we have it. The foul lines on what is permissable to consider about questions of character — at least for sitting members of Congress who have power to bring home the bacon — has moved. If you are a challenger, you can be judged not ready for office because you’ve lived most of your adult life outside the district and you haven’t earned higher office by holding more local office. If, however, you are a powerful, sitting member of Congress, you deserve re-election so long as you haven’t been charged with any crime.