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The hand that rocks the cradle

Helen Chenoweth made her mark as an anti-environmentalist and a supporter of militias. But she also pushes tort reform for manufacturers, including a campaign donor whose baby cradle may have been a killer.

Most people know Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) as the congresswoman who defended America's militias just after the Oklahoma City bombing. Or perhaps they remember the "endangered salmon bake" fundraiser she threw during her 1994 campaign, serving up portions of the beleaguered sockeye salmon. She also grabbed attention for her T-shirt that read "Earth First!" on the front and "We'll log the other planets later" on the back.

But few know the first-term representative from Boise receives campaign contributions from Graco, one of the country's largest manufacturers of children's products, including the Converta-Cradle, a rocking crib that might have caused the deaths of at least 12 infants. Graco is just one of many manufacturers who gave money to Chenoweth and other Republicans who made a lucrative campaign promise: to restrict laws that allow consumers to sue companies for damages caused by faulty products.

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Graco Children's Products, a privately held company, is a leading stroller manufacturer, with estimated revenues of $100 million. It's also known as a devoutly Baptist company that reportedly provides chapel services for employees twice a month, and will not sell public shares in the company because in the Bible, 2 Corinthians says, "do not be yoked together with unbelievers."

The Cone family, which founded the Elverson, Pa.-based Graco, began contributing to federal campaigns during the 1994 elections after several parents filed lawsuits claiming the company's automatic-rocking crib sometimes stopped rocking and tilted the infants' heads and necks, suffocating them. (Graco recalled the Converta-Cradle in 1992.) In the past two years, CEO Edward Cone, brother Robert Cone, and Robert's wife, Dawn, have contributed $153,950 to PACs and 15 federal candidates.

Robert Cone, now retired but a major stockholder in the company, says the family gave to candidates who share their views. "Did it have anything to do with product liability? No," he says.

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