Divorce, Political Style

Posted December 10, 2004 at 6:14pm

Divorce, like war, is rarely pretty. Toss a few salacious accusations by the former spouse into a heated election and you have the potential recipe for a political Molotov cocktail that can blast a candidate out of a race. As a handful of candidates discovered in the past cycle — most prominently ex-GOP Illinois Senate nominee Jack Ryan — dirty laundry usually has a way of getting aired. Ryan dropped out of the race after media organizations successfully sued to open custody records that included allegations by his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, that he forced her to go to sex clubs with him.

With that in mind, political consultants say that in the post-Jack Ryan world, candidates can expect to see their divorce records — sealed or unsealed — more closely scrutinized, particularly if there is the slightest whiff of scandal surrounding their contents.

“The context has been created for people to become more forthcoming about their records under seal,” said Mike Rice, a partner at the Democratic consulting firm Varoga Rice who specializes in opposition research. “All you’ll have to say is, ‘Remember that guy in Illinois.’”

Divorce records have always been “on the list” of “things we would go look for,” said Mark Bogetich, a GOP consultant, who specializes in opposition research.

The days are long gone when a divorce was considered the kiss of death for an office-seeker. But higher divorce rates in the general population have increased the likelihood of divorced political candidates, and in turn, the possibility of the existence of divorce records containing embarrassing information, said GOP consultant Dan Schnur.

“From this point forward when a party representative or potential campaign adviser talks to a candidate about their personal biographies this is going to be part of the conversation,” he said. “We always learn our lessons from the last campaign. We learned to ask about adultery after Gary Hart. We learned to ask about drug abuse after Douglas Ginsberg. It will take a few more races like this to get us used to talking about divorce records.”

Veterans of 2004 campaigns where the divorce records became an issue say that full disclosure up front, and on the candidate’s terms, is usually the best policy.

Illinois Democratic Senate hopeful Blair Hull disclosed his sealed divorce records, which included allegations that he had hit his ex-wife, only after sustained media pressure.

“What Blair should have done was get it out there himself back in July [2003] when it wouldn’t have been a story” instead of waiting less than a month before the Democratic primary to do so, said Chicago-based Democratic strategist Kitty Kurth, who briefly served as a consultant to Hull’s campaign.

Cliff Oxford, a wealthy businessman seeking the Democratic Senate nomination in Georgia whose divorce records contained allegations by his ex-wife Caryn that he slapped her and spit on her, chose to confront the issue head on — after the unsealed records were circulated by Republicans.

“Cliff announced his candidacy on Friday and within [a few days] we had about a two-hour sit down with the principal political reporter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,” said Angelo Fuster, a media relations consultant to Oxford. “Our candidate was very strong and very public and his former wife stood with him and supported him and endorsed him and they both talked about how blessed they were to have … worked out the relationship.”

While Oxford ended up losing a runoff against Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.), Fuster credited the initial “thorough” airing with helping to ensure that “the divorce was not the dominant issue.”

Fuster added that he did not think the records would have any lasting impact on Oxford’s viability as a future candidate.

Officials at both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee said that last cycle’s high-profile cases where divorce records attracted significant attention are unlikely to affect the way in which candidates are scrutinized in the future.

“I don’t think what we saw this cycle is going to change how candidates are vetted,” said Laura Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the DCCC. “Are we going to sue to open” sealed records? “No.”

One national Democratic source said that while candidates are asked about their backgrounds, “there’s a level of trust” that exists between the party committees and candidates when it comes to divorce records or “any hidden bombshell in the past.”

“You try to get a sense of the person’s public record but most of the time private issues are just that: private,” said NRCC spokesman Bo Harmon. “Typically we find out [about a candidate’s private life] the same way voters do.”

But some opposition researchers said that in light of the recent spate of races where records related to a candidate’s divorce became an issue, party campaign committees would be forced to be more diligent about probing for the contents of sealed records.

“You are a fool not to learn a lesson,” he said.

“We have been and will be asking to see records introduced under seal as part of our standard due diligence,” Rice said. He argued that a candidate who declines to discuss the contents of sealed records with his consultants is effectively saying: “Let’s roll the dice.”

“Sealed records have a tendency not to stay sealed,” noted Schnur.

That hasn’t stopped at least one current lawmaker from retroactively making his divorce off limits, however.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) — whose 2000 divorce led to embarrassing revelations about his personal financial difficulties — apparently had the papers sealed after aspects of the records were reported by The Washington Post.

The greater attention that divorce records are receiving clearly has some politicians concerned.

After losing his primary to Sen.-elect Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Hull penned an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune decrying “a press obsession with personal lives.” Likewise, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (D) told the Chicago Sun-Times in March that “everybody should seal their divorce records” and asserted that it wasn’t a candidate’s responsibility to make the records public.

But Kurth, the Chicago-based Democratic consultant, said that divorce records, even if they are sealed, were “public documents,” which any potential candidate should be prepared to see aired.

“If you are doing things you don’t want your kids to know about, maybe you shouldn’t be doing them,” she said.

Still, Kurth said that when running against a candidate in the midst of a divorce record meltdown it is best to “stand back and get out of the way.

“It can look like a pile on,” she said. “That’s the last thing you as a campaign professional want is to have the voters think they should start having sympathy for that person.”

That seemed to have been the dynamic in New York’s 29th district this year. Rep.-elect Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.) won an easy victory despite allegations that he pulled two shotguns on his then-wife — due in part to voter distaste with the way the sealed divorce records were made public. The documents, which first surfaced on a left-leaning Web site, were later discovered to have been inadvertently released to a campaign worker for Kuhl’s opponent, Democrat Samara Barend.

“The voters determine whether they think [the records are] relevant the same way a party organization does,” said the NRCC’s Harmon.

For the near future, however, candidates can expect to have their divorce records under the microscope.

“I think for a while divorce records might be more scrutinized and then something else might be the issue,” Fuster said.

Ultimately, it is impossible to predict what effect a salacious accusation, whether contained in a divorce record or not, will have on a candidate’s viability.

“Some of them have gone out and lived colorful lives,” Rice said. “And in some cases it reflects well on them, and they become governor of California. In some cases, you’re driven out in shame, and you go back to being an investment banker.”