Divorce, Politics Don’t Mix

Posted October 20, 2004 at 6:36pm

Is Randy Kuhl the Champ Walker of the 2004 cycle?

No — at least not yet.

Two years ago, Walker was the overwhelming favorite in the newly created 12th district in Georgia. But revelations about prior arrests and questionable business practices sandbagged his campaign in what should have been a safe Democratic district, paving the way for little-known college professor Max Burns (R) to be elected to Congress.

This year, Kuhl, a veteran Republican state Senator, has long been the favorite in the race to replace retiring Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.). But the recent trickling out of details from his contentious 2000 divorce may boost the prospects of his aggressive 27-year-old opponent, Democratic operative Samara Barend.

“There may be some minor erosion” in Kuhl’s support, conceded Carl Forti, communications director for the National Congressional Campaign Committee, “but not enough to affect the battle.”

Publicly, both campaigns and an array of political observers are circumspect about the potential political fallout for Kuhl.

Since both a liberal Web site and The Associated Press published details of the divorce more than a week ago, news outlets have reported on the contents to varying degrees.

“It’s an interesting situation we find ourselves in,” said Jonah Siegellak, Barend’s campaign manager.

Complicating matters is the fact that divorce records in New York state are supposed to be sealed for 100 years, meaning the documents were removed from a county clerk’s office, and provided to the media, illegally. Kuhl, anticipating their release, revealed that the records had improperly been unsealed on Oct. 5 at a news conference with his ex-wife by his side.

And complicating matters even further was a report in the Elmira Star-Gazette on Tuesday that the county attorney investigating the case has fingered, without naming names, the relative of someone who held a fundraiser for Barend as the person who obtained the divorce records — a charge Barend vigorously denies.

So now, as the story plays out in the sprawling 29th district, which runs from New York’s Southern Tier along the Pennsylvania border north to the Rochester area, voters are faced with conflicting pieces of information.

Certainly the details of Kuhl’s divorce aren’t pretty. They include the allegation that the 24-year lawmaker drunkenly threatened his then-wife with two shotguns at a dinner party in 1994. They also revealed that Kuhl was arrested for drunk driving in 1997. (He had previously disclosed a DWI arrest in 1980, the year he was first elected to the Legislature.)

“I think the people of Steuben County [Kuhl’s home base] know Randy Kuhl well enough not to be surprised by this incident,” said former New York Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine (D), who represented the Southern Tier in Congress from 1976 to 1986 and who aided Barend on the stump and in fundraising. “It will probably have less impact in his home area than it will in the rest of the district.”

But most Democrats, especially Barend, have been publicly reluctant to comment on their substance. “Sam is proud that she’s stayed above the fray,” Siegellak said. “We have never commented about the divorce records or the rumors we’ve heard” about Kuhl.

Still, to the extent that the divorce details augment Barend’s other arguments against Kuhl, the Republican isn’t out of the woods yet — even in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by a 5-3 margin.

Barend, for example, has reminded voters that Kuhl received a failing grade from a prominent New York-based anti-DWI group, Remove Intoxicated Drivers, in the 1990s. And Siegellak accused Kuhl of hypocrisy by decrying the invasion of his privacy while at the same time saying that he would have voted to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998 — something Houghton voted against.

Asked whether Barend would pledge not to use details of the divorce case in her final ad blitz, Siegellak hedged. “We’re still determining our ads, I’ll be honest about that,” he said. “But we have never nor will we ever put anything in an ad that wasn’t truthful.”

Kuhl’s campaign did not directly respond to Siegellak’s hypocrisy charge. Asked to comment on the potential political impact of the news about the divorce, the campaign released a statement from the candidate.

“Politics is never more important than my family’s privacy,” Kuhl said in the statement. “People are sick and tired of this kind of ugly politics. Together with my former wife I made an appeal to please respect the privacy of our family. The illegal release of our private records remains under criminal investigation and we need to let that investigation take its course.”

Some Republicans believe the leaked information could boomerang on Barend, especially if someone even indirectly connected to her campaign is found to have been responsible.

“This is a felony,” said former state Assemblyman John Hasper (R), who lives in the 29th district. “It’s nasty politics, and the chickens may come home to roost.”

Hasper said the fact that Kuhl’s ex-wife has been willing to stand by him — at least when it comes to appealing for the preservation of their family’s privacy — should blunt any Democratic attacks against Kuhl.

The district’s political numbers still favor Kuhl. The 29th was the strongest Congressional district in New York for George W. Bush in 2000. He took 53 percent of the vote to Al Gore’s 43 percent. But the Georgia 12th district was equally a Democratic stronghold: Gore would have taken 54 percent there to Bush’s 45 percent. And that was not enough to save Champ Walker in 2002.

Different numbers seem to favor Barend. As of Sept. 30, she had $334,000 in her campaign account, compared to $144,000 for Kuhl — even though he outraised her, $678,000 to $421,000. Barend is also credited with cultivating an enthusiastic group of grassroots supporters.

“It’s a much more closely contested race than I would have assumed, knowing the Republican character of the district and the fact that a well-known Republican [state] Senator is running against a young woman who has never held public office,” Lundine said.

Three Republican heavyweights are scheduled to campaign with Kuhl in the next few days: Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and New York Gov. George Pataki.

No public polling has been released in the race, and several political insiders suggest that voters are just beginning to sort out the details of the divorce record saga.

“It’s left a lot of people of both parties with a bad taste in their mouths,” Hasper said.

CORRECTION:

The Oct. 21 article “Divorce, Politics Don’t Mix” incorrectly stated the number of times New York state Sen., Randy Kuhl has admitted to being arrested for drunk driving. Kuhl, the Republican nominee in the race to replace Rep. Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.), revealed earlier this year that he was arrested in 1997.