Storm suddenly hits a popular candidate ON POLITICS



CHICAGO -- Carol Moseley Braun, seeking to become the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, was reflecting before the guests at a $250-a-plate fund-raiser here the other night about a storm that has suddenly hit her candidacy.

It involves a $28,750 real-estate inheritance check to her 78-year-old mother, living in a nursing home, that the Senate candidate then deposited into her own bank account, later sharing the funds with a brother and sister. The rub is that the mother is receiving Medicaid and under state law was obliged to report receipt of any such funds to the state agency involved, for a determination as to whether the money should go toward her health care bills. No such report was made when the money was received three years ago.

"Who needs this?" Braun told her audience she had asked herself, referring to the press attention and criticism the episode had generated. "Why are they doing this to me?" But she had decided, she said, to persevere because so many people were counting on her.

Braun, however, has been around Chicago and Illinois politics long enough -- first as a state legislator for 10 years and as Cook County recorder of deeds for the last five -- to know that the disclosure would be pure poison for any political candidate. And it is particularly so for a black candidate in a city and state where race has nearly always been front and center in politics.

White candidates for years have made verbal war on many aspects of public welfare, seeking to ride the racial polarization and stereotype that are generated by allegations of welfare cheating among black recipients. "This is probably the worst kind of issue for her," says Don Rose, a longtime Chicago political consultant who helped elect the city's first black mayor, the late Harold Washington.

Braun's Republican opponent, former Reagan White House aide Rich Williamson, has jumped onto the issue with both feet. He says the case is only one aspect of "a litany of ethical abuses" by Braun and raises questions of a possible Braun tax liability. First raised by a Chicago television station, the Medicaid issue has been fed by Braun's own inept handling, marked by changes in her explanation, in which she basically says she was acting at her mother's specific bidding, apparently to reimburse her children for funds they had spent for her nursing care.

The matter has produced a sharp drop in Braun's healthy lead over Williamson in the Chicago Tribune poll just out. It shows her slipping from a 54 percent to 26 percent advantage a week earlier to 46 percent to 29 percent, still a strong 17-point lead. But Democratic supporters are nervous that there could be other revelations, or that Williamson with a hard-hitting television campaign in the final weeks could narrow the gap even more.

The Republican nominee, little known among voters in Illinois, on two earlier occasions ran radio ads that were censured by a local campaign watchdog group, CONDUCT, for racial overtones. One criticized Braun for sponsoring a 1979 resolution praising Gus Savage, then a black state legislator and later a congressman widely condemned for criticism of American Jews. The other pointed out the fact that Braun was a Jesse Jackson delegate to the 1988 Democratic convention.

Until this latest revelation, Braun was cruising along as the most celebrated female candidate in the much-ballyhooed "Year of the Woman." As a black woman to boot, the money and press attention flowed to her, to the point that one veteran Democratic politician refers to her as "not a candidate -- a rock star."

Another Democratic pro says the best thing she has going for her in the present adversity is that "she has a good safety net beneath her because of the historic nature of her candidacy." In other words, the prospect of her becoming the first black woman in the Senate, which has brought women in both parties flocking to her side, remains her best shield against further negative revelations.

That, plus the strength of Bill Clinton at the top of the party ticket in the state, as seen in another Chicago Tribune poll showing him running 20 points ahead of President Bush here, gives Braun's supporters and strategists hope she can survive the current storm.

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