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David Harsanyi: What if Sestak Wasn’t the Only One?

Political payoffs have a familiar ring in Colorado's Democratic Senate primary

Political payoffs are so commonplace in Washington that I was initially unable to muster an appropriate level of outrage at hearing that Rep. Joe Sestak had accused the Obama administration of offering him a job in exchange for his withdrawal from the Pennsylvania Democratic senatorial primary.

David Harsanyi
David Harsanyi

Until, that is, I heard President Barack Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod explain to CNN’s John King that though there was “no evidence” (hey, if the administration’s senior adviser claims there is no evidence, we should move along) if such an offer were made, it would constitute “a serious breach of the law.”

If the Democratic Party’s choice for the Senate in Pennsylvania is a fabulist — as Axelrod is effectively saying — why does Sestak’s story sound so familiar to one in the Democratic Senate primary in Colorado?

In a September 2009 article headlined “D.C. job alleged as attempt to deter Romanoff,” the Denver Post’s Michael Riley reported that Andrew Romanoff, former speaker of the Colorado House, then still contemplating a run again against the governor-installed administration-sanctioned foot solider Michael Bennet, received an “unexpected communication” from a renowned kingmaker in Washington.

Jim Messina, President Barack Obama’s deputy chief of staff and a storied fixer in the White House political shop,” Riley at the time wrote, “suggested a place for Romanoff might be found in the administration and offered specific suggestions, according to several sources who described the communication to The Denver Post.”

Apparently, if you’re running against the establishment’s preference, a communication from Messina should not be entirely unexpected.

Shortly before Riley’s thoroughly sourced piece ran, my colleague, Denver Post editorial board member Chuck Plunkett, asked Romanoff if he had been offered a position within the administration. The answer was no. But did the White House ever “chat” or “suggest” that a job might perhaps open up if, for whatever reason, Romanoff decided not to run? (Romanoff’s campaign did not return my call.)

It should be noted there are differences between the Romanoff and Sestak cases. One: Romanoff, it seems, was not directly offered a position. Two: Romanoff was not yet officially a candidate when the administration was not offering him a position.

Does it matter? After reading the law in question (you see the entire thing online by searching for “US Code — Section 600: Promise of employment or other benefit for political activity”), it is clear that any offer of a job “directly or indirectly ... to any person as consideration, favor, or reward for any political activity ... in connection with any general or special election to any political office, or in connection with any primary election” is an illegal act. (Liberal use of italics, mine.)

Conceivably, the U.S. Agency for International Development was frantically hunting for someone with Romanoff’s unique work and life experiences exactly at the time everyone in Colorado knew he was contemplating a challenge of the largely unknown Bennet. Or, perhaps, Romanoff, once a moderate liberal and now running to the populist left, was exactly the kind of recognized contender that could cause trouble for an untested candidate.

You might be able to ignore Sestak, but another similar plot line makes the story far more plausible.

None of this is exactly shocking stuff — I was, actually, slightly surprised to find out that job offers of this variety were illegal. Yet, it is one thing for an administration to “urge” someone to make room for a preferred candidate and quite another for it to use its power to offer (or even discuss) a taxpayer-funded position as a payoff.

Don’t take my word for it. Axlerod says it’s a breach of law.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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