How Darrell Issa’s Pursuit of Attorney General Eric Holder Is Playing Back Home

Is Darrell Issa a government watchdog--or a dangerous pit bull? Jamie Reno asks his constituents.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

Every politician on Capitol Hill has supporters and haters back home, but Southern California Congressman Darrell Issa is especially revered—and reviled—in his home Congressional District 49.

Seemingly everyone in the 49th, which runs from north San Diego County to central Orange County, has an opinion about Issa, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chair who last week voted with his fellow Republicans on the committee to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for not producing subpoenaed documents in the Operation Fast and Furious gun-running sting.

Issa, who began holding hearings on the operation last year, said early on that the people involved in the Fast and Furious case must be either “punished legally or are at least dismissed.” The goal of Fast and Furious, which was run by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), was to stem the flow of firearms to Mexico by allowing thousands of guns to be bought by suspected gun traffickers within the United States and tracking the guns as they were transferred to key figures in Mexican drug cartels, in the hope that it would lead to their arrests and the dismantling of these cartels. But the operation made headlines and became a political firestorm in the aftermath of the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who died from a gunshot from one of those guns.

In part because of the high-profile investigation, Issa has become a household name and a fixture on the Sunday-morning news-show circuit. And with the full House of Representatives expected to vote on Thursday for the first time in history to cite a sitting U.S. attorney general for contempt of Congress, Issa’s national profile promises to grow only larger.

Already, Issa’s supporters in his district—which is 43 percent Republican, 30 percent Democratic, and 20 percent independent—see the six-term Congressman as a straight-shooting, courageous government watchdog right out of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

“Darrell deserves a medal of some kind for trying to clean up Washington,” says Matt Carlson, a Republican who lives in south Orange County. “He isn’t afraid to get to the truth no matter whose feathers he ruffles. I don’t care what liberals are saying about him, I admire the way he’s holding the attorney general’s feet to the fire. He’s not letting this president get away with anything.”

But Issa’s critics see him not as a watchdog but an attack dog who is self-serving, aloof to voters in his own district, openly hostile to non-Republicans, and can’t be trusted.

“Issa is the most divisive and unethical politician I’ve seen in a long time,” says Bob Fisher, a Democrat from the 49th. “This whole thing with Holder is a political show. It’s all about Issa trying to make a name for himself. We have enough real problems in this country that his committee should be looking at.”

Fisher, 74, a former reporter with the famed New York Herald Tribune, says what he finds most troubling about Issa is that “he just doesn’t interact with or care about the people or problems here in our district. You never see him out in public, and he never debates his opponents. I’ve written him many letters and neither he nor his staff has ever responded. In my opinion he cares more about tearing down Democrats than about our district.”

Myrna Marston, a San Diego County Republican who first met Issa at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego, says criticisms like that are simply not the Darrell Issa she knows.

“There is no arrogance about Mr. Issa whatsoever, which I have found to be unusual,” she says. “I was proud of the leadership he displayed in the hearings with Holder. I don’t believe for one minute that his actions were based on political maneuvering. It seemed pretty clear to me that he was angry as hell for the shell game the AG’s office was playing, at the expense of a dead border patrol agent.”

One of the wealthiest members of Congress, Issa, who earned his fortune in the car-alarm business, has been a polarizing figure since he first appeared on California’s political landscape in the early 1990s. Before he held public office he helped fund Proposition 209, a 1996 California ballot initiative that banned affirmative action in public institutions. In 2003 he got national attention for financing the successful effort to recall former California governor Gray Davis.

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A Cleveland native and Army veteran, Issa lost his first election—a 1998 California senatorial bid in which he reportedly spent $10 million of his own money. But in November 2000 he was elected to the House of Representatives, and since then, he has ascended from an obscure freshman to one of the GOP’s biggest stars.

There is much speculation about Issa’s aspirations for higher office. Many of his critics say the current hearings over Fast and Furious are all part of his plan to get a cabinet position if Mitt Romney is elected president. “He’s very, very rich, so this to me is more about power and ego,” says Fisher. “I also think that he still wants to be a senator, which was his original aspiration, or California’s governor, which he also wanted back in 2003 before the Republican party chose Arnold (Schwarzenegger) as their guy.”

Issa, who’s saved some of his most vitriolic rhetoric for President Obama (he once called him “one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times”) said on Fox News Sunday this week that there was no evidence that the Obama administration was involved in a cover-up regarding Fast and Furious. But a day later, in a letter sent to the president, Issa questioned whether the administration failed to provide case law in its decision to assert executive privilege in the Fast and Furious case, and questioned if the president was asserting the privilege "solely for the purpose of further obstructing a congressional investigation."

White House spokesman Eric Schultz quickly dismissed Issa's analysis, saying in a statement emailed to the press on Tuesday that it has “as much merit as his absurd contention that Operation Fast and Furious was created in order to promote gun control … Our position is consistent with executive branch legal precedent for the past three decades spanning administrations of both parties, and dating back to President Reagan's Department of Justice.”

While Issa has been criticized by some for his relentless pursuit of the Obama administration, his work as oversight chair has been praised by some impartial sources. In 2010, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonpartisan government-watchdog group, awarded Issa with its Good Government Award for being “instrumental in promoting government transparency and accountability.”

But San Diego County resident Albin Novinec, a retired 28-year veteran of the Marine Corps who did three tours of duty in Iraq, isn’t impressed. Novinec, who’s been a Republican most of his adult life, says he recently re-registered as an independent largely because he feels Issa, and the Republican Party, are out of control.

“Issa should be working for his constituents here who voted him in, but instead he’s spending 100 percent of his time on this committee just going after Obama,” says Novinec. “He’s gone way too far right, and so has the Republican Party. He’s lost touch with the people of his own district. What has he done for us lately? I’m not voting for him this time.”

Dr. David Golman, a clinical research consultant and Democrat who also resides in Issa’s district, sees a pattern in Issa’s life. “It’s all about money and power,” Golman says. “I believe his past indiscretions should be discussed; they’re part of the narrative that voters in this district should be aware of. It’s part of his character.”

Those “indiscretions” include, among other things, his arrest in Cleveland in 1972, at the age of 18, for carrying a concealed weapon; he pled guilty to the lesser charge of possession of an unregistered gun and paid a small fine and was sentenced to six months’ probation.

Issa has also been accused of cronyism and hypocrisy as a member of the House. In February 2011, the Watchdog Institute at San Diego State University concluded that Issa “built a team that included staff members with close connections to industries that could benefit from his investigations.” At the time, Issa declined to comment on the findings of the institute.

Issa was also criticized for seeking federal dollars for clean-energy concerns in his home state like Aptera Motors, an electric-car maker that is a major contributor to Issa—while at the same time accusing the Obama administration of corruption for its similar support of Solyndra, the now-bankrupt solar-panel manufacturer. At the time, Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, told Bloomberg that Aptera has been awaiting an Energy Department decision for three years. “In the entire time that Aptera’s application has been pending, Solyndra was able to obtain taxpayer backing and go bankrupt leaving taxpayers on the hook,” Hill said in an e-mail to Bloomberg. “Most applicants for federal programs don’t, in fact, receive the VIP treatment Solyndra did.”

Issa’s office would not respond to several requests for an interview for this story. But Issa has repeatedly said that he has been unfairly maligned by the press and by his political opponents. Issa’s challenger in this year’s congressional race, Jerry Tetalman, a Democrat with no previous political experience, said in an interview with The Daily Beast that he did not wish to delve into Issa’s past indiscretions.

“We want to focus on the issues in this race,” says Tetelman, “and we think we can convince women voters, independent voters, and even some Republicans to come over to our side.”

Tetelman’s campaign manager, Charles Dodson, was a bit more blunt: “Issa’s supporters in this district will fall on the sword for him no matter what he does, but support for Jerry is growing, especially among independents and even some Republicans, as more and more people see what Darrell Issa is really all about.” Dodson says that “whenever Darrell does something questionable, whether it’s holding a hearing on contraception with no women on the panel, or turning his back on postal workers that once supported him, or saying outrageous and unfounded things about the president, our contributions spike from people in this district, and from all over the country. We gained more than 300 new followers on Twitter in just the first couple of days following the contempt vote.”

Issa’s supporters dismiss such criticisms, saying that he is an easy target because he is so outspoken and refuses to back down to anyone in his pursuit of truth in government. “They’re targeting the wrong guy,” says Marston. “It’s pretty clear that nameless, faceless political operatives who want to contribute to Wikipedia sites can, and do. These most likely are the same operatives who are digging up decades-old antics of 18-year-olds, who were never formally charged with any crimes, and calling it news. If you take an honest look at Issa’s life on balance—with his skilled military service to becoming a self-made businessman, and now congressman—I’d say it pretty well represents America’s values.”