Rep. Wynn faces heat over war in re-election

He emerges as critic after party challenge

June 18, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun Reporter

Silver Spring -- The problem, says Rep. Albert R. Wynn, is that he believed Vice President Dick Cheney.

Little more than a year had passed since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And when Cheney and others alleged that Saddam Hussein had been developing weapons of mass destruction, Wynn says, he bought it. The Prince George's County Democrat voted against the majority of his party by authorizing President Bush to use military force in Iraq.

Today Wynn is one of the war's leading critics. He has taken to the floor of the House of Representatives to call for a U.S. pullout. He voted last month against continuing to fund operations in Iraq. He has signed on to a measure to impeach Cheney - and said in an interview that Bush "ought to be called up as well."

Such statements mark a hard left turn for a congressman who once cited the vulnerability of his district bordering on Washington to terrorism as a reason for supporting the war. And Donna Edwards is taking credit.

"It's really clear to me that Mr. Wynn would not be positioning himself where he is now had I not challenged him," said Edwards, the former Wynn aide and campaign volunteer who nearly defeated him in last fall's Democratic primary by running as an anti-war candidate.

After losing by just 3.3 percent of the vote last year, Edwards is preparing for a rematch in 2008.

Wynn isn't the only one feeling the pressure. With the new Democratic majority unable to wind down the war, polls show public approval of congressional Democrats slipping.

Anti-war activists have occupied the Capitol Hill offices of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, both Democrats, to demand that they stop voting to fund combat operations in Iraq. And the liberal organization MoveOn.org has run radio ads criticizing House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer for approving new war spending without a timeline for withdrawing troops.

"There are a number of Democrats who find themselves now up against an electorate that is growing increasingly alienated," said Ronald Walters, director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "The war is becoming a very important factor in their assessment of candidates."

Wynn, who kicked off his re-election campaign this month, declined to respond to Edwards' comments, beyond noting that he publicly described his vote for the war as a mistake in 2004, well before last year's primary. He joined the congressional Out of Iraq Caucus in 2005.

"We heard the message from the voters that they wanted me to do some things in a different way," the eight-term incumbent said last week after a campaign appearance in Silver Spring. "I'm not in denial about that. ... We are responding to some of the concerns that they expressed in the last election."

Edwards trounced Wynn last fall in the portion of left-leaning Montgomery County into which the 4th District extends - a section that includes the liberal enclave of Takoma Park. Walters describes the African-American population in Prince George's County, meanwhile, as among the strongest in the nation against the war.

"The progressive cast of his opposition in the last election weighed heavily on him," Walters said. "And I think he's moving to correct that."

Zach Messitte, director of the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College of Maryland, described Wynn as "worried about what happened in the 2006 primary." Speaking out against the war, Messitte said, "is definitely a way of saying, `Look, I understand what the voters of my congressional district are saying to me.'"

Wynn is one of seven co-sponsors of a measure filed by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich to impeach Cheney.

"Cheney is one of the people that was instrumental in promoting this whole war effort," Wynn said. "He was the guy that was out front talking about the weapons of mass destruction. ... He has been particularly disingenuous with respect to the statements that he has made, and particularly harmful to the country."

In the absence of weapons of the sort officials said would be found in Iraq, Wynn says, continued U.S. military involvement there cannot be justified. He speaks of withdrawing U.S. forces, committing to reconstruction and supporting a regional peace process that would involve Syria and Iran as well as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other U.S. allies.

Wynn's position has won him praise from MoveOn.org, whose members in the 4th District voted last year to endorse Edwards. But it isn't enough for Edwards. The attorney and community activist, who hammered Wynn last year on his votes to authorize the war, to allow oil drilling in protected land in Alaska and to approve tax breaks for oil and gas companies, has filed papers for another run at him next year.

"We're going to finish the job that we started," she said. "Although Mr. Wynn is changing his positions left and right on any number of things, it's not real. The 4th District is in need of leadership, it's in need of change, and we want somebody we can count on, and not just someone who's going to come around when pushed up against a wall."

At the Silver Spring Transit Center last Monday, Wynn opened an 11-minute address by calling the decision to go to war in Iraq "probably the biggest mistake our country has ever made."

"I want to assure the voters of this district that I am absolutely committed to bringing the troops home now," he told an audience of about two dozen.

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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