Rovean Political Theory Meets Reality In New Mexico Congressional Race

What’s a mother to do?

(Note: This was written a month before the election. Wilson won by a margin so narrow it took two weeks of counting to resolve.)

New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District is on the Democratic turnover list, but I think the campaign is also of national significance because it illustrates a weakness in Karl Rovean political theory.

The contest between Republican Heather Wilson, going for her fifth full term, and Democratic challenger Patricia Madrid, the state attorney general, was tight even before the Mark Foley scandal broke. Now, as more evidence of his sexual harassment of teenage pages comes to light, Wilson has a peculiar problem, one of her own doing. More than most other members of Congress, she has to answer the accusation that if she didn’t know about Foley, she should have known.

Obviously sensitive to the issue, she told the Albuquerque Journal, “How do people think I should have known? Think about any group you’re involved with that has 500 people in it. Do you know what they’re writing in their e-mails?” But this might not ring true with the crucial swing voters in the Albuquerque-based district. Not only was the response artfully limited to e-mail evidence at a time when other evidence was developing. It also was dismissive of the duties of Wilson’s position, between 2001 and 2005, as one of only three House members on a board set up to oversee House pages.

Madrid puts it simply: “She wasn’t doing her job.” This is not completely at odds with the sentiment of Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who said, “Could the page board have handled it better? In retrospect, probably yes.” Wilson said she didn’t know about it. But shouldn’t she have shown a little more curiosity? Her background has something to do with a fair answer to that question.

First of all, Wilson is smart and honest. Character is not the issue. Her peculiar problem is that she has a public persona, carefully nurtured in line with Republican practice, as a mother with experience in family issues. In short, as a guardian of youth. This was why she was put on the page board in the first place. The simplicity of the persona has political appeal. It is consistent with the Karl Rovean principles of message control, moral certainty, priority of family values and emphasis of parental authority. But it doesn’t describe the other side of Heather Wilson, the side that was her true qualification for the Congressional seat eight years ago.

A Wikipedia table lists her occupation as “Air Force pilot.” But it’s not entirely misleading. She did learn to fly at the U.S. Air Force Academy. And once, when she was the newest member of the House and weighing how to vote on impeachment of Bill Clinton, she took a break with a special operations wing at Kirtland Air Force Base. She went for a night ride on a CH-53 helicopter. “It was great!” she told me. “Low level with night vision goggles up through the canyons near the Baca then out beyond Jemez and San Ysidro. Three remote landings and air refueling from a C-130. Best thing I’ve gotten to do since being elected.” Not exactly a soft parental image.

(She did vote with the Republican majority to impeach. President Clinton, she said, “has acknowledged having an extramarital affair with an employee in the workplace, and I think that conduct is shameful.”)

Wilson went to Congress at age 37, winning a special election in June 1998. It was a Cinderella story, with U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici playing the handsome prince. She was two years into her first state job in early 1998 when Domenici recruited her to run for the seat of Republican Congressman Steve Schiff, who was losing his battle against cancer. Schiff died on March 28 of that year. Domenici endorsed Wilson in the Republican primary, made TV commercials with her for the special election to fill out Schiff’s term and helped her win the general election against Democrat Phil Maloof for a full term.
The powerful senator, whose partisanship was unusual, must have appreciated her electability on family issues, but he is no fool. New Mexico’s economic welfare hangs on national defense appropriations, especially funding of the government laboratories. And Wilson’s professional expertise was defense. She is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and a Rhodes Scholar. She served seven years in England and Europe as an Air Force planner and NATO negotiator. She became a National Security Council staffer in the George H.W. Bush White House. Domenici’s judgment was right on. Wilson is ascending in the House hierarchy, a member of important committees, chair of the House Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence.

So obviously in Washington, at least, she has grown beyond the persona she arrived with. She gave up the page board to give full time to the chairmanship. She still does not discourage the parental persona back home in Albuquerque. But because of it and the “October surprise” involving Foley, it might have become political baggage.

It is to some extent her own doing. In the Clinton years, she made a sudden life change. She moved to Albuquerque, married lawyer Jay Hone and began raising a family. But she also incorporated a defense consulting business. And when Gary Johnson became governor in 1996, she joined his cabinet as secretary of Children, Youth and Families – her choice.

What exactly was a defense consultant doing in the business of child welfare and juvenile justice? Without disparaging her good work during those two years, you could say it was a well placed stepping stone. The office softened her military image, as did her later campaign appearances with toddler in tow.

She lobbied the 1997 Legislature for a bill bringing New Mexico in line with states that required registration of juvenile sex offenders and for tougher laws on child abuse and neglect. In one interview Wilson grabbed a sheaf of paper and read off some depressing conclusions from a study of 14 children in a state group home. Eleven had been sexually abused at home, beginning when they were toddlers. “Their average age is nine!” she said, throwing down the report.

At the same time, she said, “The medicalization of social problems is something I have trouble with. Not all abused kids become delinquent, and not all delinquents were abused kids. No matter how abused and neglected, they have to know that at some point they’re going to grow old enough that society doesn’t care.”

Now, with a crucial election just weeks away, that could be her reaction to Foley’s defense that his conduct was due to secret alcoholism and the consequences of sexual abuse as a youth. But Wilson is standing back, perhaps because she is in a political dilemma – she can’t maximize the Foley scandal without having to answer for not knowing about it, and only fools would minimize it.

A moral persona in politics can eclipse reality. Wilson, for example, voted for stem-cell research. It was misinterpreted as a departure from moral values in an attempt to show independence from the White House. More positive reality: it was a vote for science in a scientific district. The moral persona can is camouflage in the case of political hypocrites like Foley. But in the case of Heather Wilson, who is honorable and consistent, the superficial persona can create a cynical distance from how well she is doing her job as a representative of the 1st Congressional District. No, overseeing House pages is not her job