Monday, March 22, 2010

The Chief': Good cop whose words cost him House seat

Former Raleigh police chief and U.S. Rep. Fred Heineman died Saturday at age 80. Martha Quillen had the story this morning. U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat representing North Carolina's 4th Congressional District, issued a gracious statement about Heineman:

"Lisa and I are saddened to learn of Fred Heineman’s passing, and our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time. Long before he ran for Congress, I worked with him and admired his service as Raleigh’s Chief of Police. His work in law enforcement helped make the Capital City one of the best places in the country to live and raise a family. His colleagues in Congress well understood his commitment to public safety; he was known on Capitol Hill as “The Chief.” One could never doubt Fred’s strength of conviction and dedication to public service," Price said in a statement Sunday.

The warmth of Price's statement masks the sharp competitiveness of two races going back to the mid-1990s when Heineman, a popular police chief known for his compassion and willingness to give those in trouble a second chance, knocked off Price from the House in the 1994 election, only to lose the seat back to Price in 1996.

In 1995, then-Rep. Heineman was quoted in a newspaper story for remarks that set the tone for 1996. In that 1995 story, he said, "When I see a first-class individual who makes $80,000 a year, he's lower middle class. When I see someone who is making anywhere from $300,000 to $750,000, that's middle class. When I see anyone above that, that's upper middle class."

Heineman's income at the time was about $183,000, including his congressional salary of $133,000 and police pension of about $50,000. The statement made Heineman look arrogant as well as out of touch in a state where many families were struggling to rise above the poverty level, let alone dream about making $80,000 a year.

And in the 1996 campaign, Price's campaign took advantage with a funny but biting ad now known in political lore as "Earth to Fred." It played on the far-out character of Heineman's remarks and included such lines as "Earth to Fred. Come in Congressman" and "Fred Heineman, he's out of touch with average families here. Way out."

But that wasn't the only thing that beat Heineman that year. He was also ill, in the hospital for a while and losing weight, and could not campaign hard for weeks. Heineman had beaten Price by about 1,200 votes in 1994, but Price beat him soundly in 1996, winning 54 percent of the vote to Heineman's 45 percent.

Heineman and his allies argued that his remarks about income and class levels were taken badly out of context, but it was hard to find a way to put them in any context where they didn’t look dumb prior to the 1996 election.

As I wrote at the time 15 years ago, “Egad. The chief got elected to Congress barely a year ago and has been in Washington only 10 months. That's mighty quick to lose touch with so many constituents who make considerably less than Heineman's salary but who thought they were in the middle class. The fact is that per capita N.C. income is $18,760; median family income is about $28,424. Less than 8 percent of N.C. families had incomes of $75,000 or over. Perhaps 1 percent have incomes as high as the chief.”

No comments: