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The Purity of Coleen Rowley

She has limited campaign funding and won't pose for the cover of Time. But Rowley might have what it takes to win a congressional election.

At this point in her jeremiad, Rowley gestures at the Danish modern dining table in the living room of her ’70s-style split-level. On the table, a heap of envelopes and checks threatens to pitch onto the floor; stray dollar bills peek out here and there. She spent five hours on the phone the day before, asking people on a call list for money.

When Democratic recruiters first approached Rowley about running in 2004, she said no. She had not yet left the FBI and, speaking of money, couldn’t afford to until she had secured her pension and health care benefits for her family. “But the real reason, above and beyond, was this fundraising thing. I was at the bottom of my sixth-grade class in selling Girl Scout cookies. I sold 11 boxes—and 6 of them were to my grandmother.” When she retired at the end of the year, she set her sights on an appointment to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a federal panel charged with ensuring that anti- terrorism efforts don’t erode civil rights. President Bush passed on her, and the next time the Democrats came knocking—insisting they were looking for candidates with unconventional backgrounds who could capture the imagination of the voting public—Rowley said yes.

The grumbling, from fellow Dems and pundits alike, started right away. The week Rowley declared her candidacy, she says she got calls from reporters at national political publications asking how much money she had raised. Newspapers quoted strategists who complained that she was “failing to accept advice” on matters ranging from her physical appearance to the hiring of a campaign manager. One political editor criticized her August visit to Cindy Sheehan’s antiwar protest in Texas as “especially risky” and said her campaign had “something of a homemade feel.”

“The Democrats were desperate to get someone to go against Kline, and they went with her for the obvious reason that she had a big name,” says David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul whose research specialty is media and politics. “But what they didn’t expect is that, as a whistleblower, she’s someone who’s pretty unconventional. They’re getting what they want, but they’re not liking what they’re getting.”

Pundits have also opined that Rowley should stop talking about Iraq, especially in a district Bush won in 2004 with 54 percent of the vote. But she says her campaign’s canvasses suggest the opposite: The war, along with concerns that it has made the country less secure, was by far the topic most often raised. And who better to press that issue than a career FBI agent who voted Republican until she saw bad intelligence being used to justify war?

“She may pull it off,” says Schultz. “If she can run against Bush, against the Washington establishment, and link Kline to Bush, which is easy to do, she may capture the swing vote.”

If Rowley does pull it off, it may be in spite of herself. In her insistence on purity, she is not just refusing to style her hair or apply more mascara; she’s refusing even to pose for campaign literature with the Time cover on which she and 2002’s other famed whistleblowers—Enron’s Sherron Watkins and WorldCom’s Cynthia Cooper—are celebrated. If she wins, she says, it must be because voters see and hear Coleen Rowley, not because of some editor’s decision to put her on the cover. No wonder the insiders don’t know what to do with her.

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