The House of Representatives of our era doesn't lack for camp spectacle. There's Indiana's Dan Burton, who shot at melons in his backyard to “prove” that the Clintons had Vince Foster murdered. Tom Tancredo of Colorado once advocated that America “take out” Muslim holy sites. The list goes on.
But that list, lengthy as it is, is surely topped by Pennsylvania's Curt Weldon. Known as something of a fist-banger and loose cannon -- and continually denied a committee chairmanship by his fellow House Republicans despite his 20 years of service -- Weldon has a knack for uncovering fantastic government conspiracies. Word of this is finally getting around his suburban Philadelphia district, and he faces his first real challenge in ages this fall, from Joe Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral fed up with Republican national-security policy.
Weldon's reputation for Tom Clancy-esque capers may be more than offset by another longtime habit -- his ability to bring defense money into the district. That it sometimes arrives with strings attached, like the hiring of Weldon friends and family members, seems to matter less than the fact that it arrives at all. It will take a Democratic tsunami for Weldon to lose, so this race is worth watching for two reasons: as an electoral bellwether, and because a Weldon departure would restore a measure of sanity to Washington.
Probably Weldon's most notorious venture into the dark side is something known to insiders as “Able Danger,” an obscure and now defunct Pentagon data-mining program. Weldon claims the program identified the chief September 11 hijacker months before the attacks. The villains in his theory are civil-liberties-minded Pentagon lawyers who supposedly blocked analysts from sharing their findings with the FBI. He has even alleged that the 9-11 Commission conspired in a cover-up of the Able Danger findings. (Both the Pentagon and the 9-11 Commission vigorously dispute his accusations.)
Iran is another area in which Weldon has consistently pushed a black-helicopter narrative. He published a tabloidish book on Iran, titled Countdown to Terror, and went on Meet the Press to denounce the CIA for failing to hire his secret Iranian intelligence source. The source turned out to be a business associate of a discredited former Iran-Contra arms dealer and intelligence peddler Manucher Ghorbanifar, who has been deemed a fabricator by the CIA and was looking to get on the U.S. payroll once again.
In his latest headline-grabbing tirade, Weldon has insisted that the Bush administration actually suppressed evidence of weapons of mass destruction being found in Iraq. At one point he even planned to fly to Iraq secretly and commandeer Army equipment to go dig the hidden arsenal up himself, according to Dave Gaubatz, who had planned to accompany him. (The trip was called off when Gaubatz backed out, alarmed that Weldon was trying to politicize the project.)
But it's not just Weldon's zeal for alleged conspiracies that makes eyebrows rise and eyes roll among his Hill colleagues. It's his international crusades and business dealings, his taste for the odd dictator and his attraction to diplomatic freelancing and intelligence dabbling. During his 33 trips to Russia, Weldon has developed cozy ties with Russian defense contractors and energy companies. Two Russian firms have hired his daughter, Karen, for government-relations work. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, both Weldon's daughter and his friend and real-estate agent, Cecelia Grimes, have reinvented themselves as lobbyists. Although neither of them has any Washington experience, they quickly attracted lucrative lobbying contracts from defense contractors and foreign business interests seeking federal contracts and favors.
Meanwhile, Weldon has publicly praised Uzbekistan's corrupt and brutal leader Islam Karimov, whose security services have been charged in State Department human-rights reports with systematic torture of dissidents and pro-democracy activists. “He has made himself into a champion of [Karimov] and become a tool in some of Karimov's vendettas against his adversaries,” says Scott Horton, an international lawyer and adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School.
A few years ago, a Central Asia hand observed Weldon introducing a young woman to Russian energy company officials at a Eurasia-oriented petroleum economics event in Washington, D.C. “The amazing thing was that Weldon was working the room and he had this young woman with him, and it was like, ‘I really want to introduce you to somebody who would do a great job to help you with government affairs,' and it was his daughter, Karen,” the observer said. “A lot of people at the Uzbek embassy told me Weldon had very aggressively peddled his services to the embassy done in joint relationship with his daughter.” Weldon denied aiding his daughter to a newspaper in his district in 2004.
Weldon is a go-to congressman for defense contractors seeking congressional support. But many of his colleagues, even Republican colleagues, know not to take his explosive tirades too seriously. His unsuccessful bids to chair committees -- Armed Services and Homeland Security -- underscore this point. “Weldon is erratic,” says a former Republican staffer to the House Armed Services Committee, on which Weldon is a ranking member. “The intelligence community does not take him seriously,” says a former House intelligence committee staffer. “Anything connected to him has the same treatment. The opinion of Weldon is that he is on a crusade.”
Yet despite his reputation, the fact that this November is widely expected to be the most tumultuous midterm congressional race since 1994, and the fact that Weldon's district went 53-47 for John Kerry in 2004, he is actually looking somewhat safer than many of his fellow Republican incumbents. The Washington Post's political analyst Chris Cilizza rated the Weldon-Sestak race the 20th most competitive in the country, as of the first week of September, even though the challenger has successfully raised a considerable war chest.
Why doesn't his national reputation for goofiness hurt him more at home? The answers may have a lot to do with Weldon's symbiotic relationship with the defense industry that has worked to create and keep jobs in and on the edges of his district. “The voters only care about one thing,” says a Washington observer of Weldon, “how much money does he get back into that district?”
A case in point: Last year, with Weldon's support, an Italian-led consortium, AgustaWestland-Lockheed, won a $1.6 billion Navy contract to build the next generation of presidential helicopters over a U.S.-led consortium. As part of its bid, AgustaWestland, the helicopter subsidiary of Italian defense giant Finmeccanica, expanded its Philadelphia plant operations.
But there was more to the deal than jobs for his district. According to Harper's magazine reporter Ken Silverstein, AgustaWestland hired another Weldon daughter, Kim, to work in its public-relations department. Furthermore, another Finmeccanica subsidiary, Oto Melara, hired the real-estate agent, Cecelia Grimes, as its lobbyist. Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense says Weldon promoted Grimes' lobbying clients in other ways. “Her clients were being profiled at congressional hearings that [Weldon] ran,” Ashdown recalls.
Observers say Weldon is a perfect reflection of the political machine he has represented over the years. “Delaware County is, if not the most powerful, then one of the oldest and most successful political machines in the United States,” says former Weldon opponent Dave Landau. “And Weldon is only a functionary of the machine.”
Come November, we'll know whether the voters of Pennsylvania's 7th District still think the machine delivers for them. But here's one sign Weldon's worried: Shortly after Labor Day, he introduced a resolution that would give on-the-ground military commanders -- instead of the president -- the authority to decide when to bring American troops home from Iraq. The Hill's account of the move noted that Weldon was attempting to position himself as independent of President Bush, whose Iraq policy he has mostly supported down the line. It also observed dryly that Weldon was forced to settle for a nonbinding resolution “after learning that legislation would conflict with the president's constitutional war powers.” That's not the sort of thing that's usually stopped him in the past.
Laura Rozen is a Prospect senior correspondent.