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Rough Weather Ahead for Condit - July 6, 2001

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

The story has changed dramatically. We see it in the headlines. A short time ago, titles referred mainly to missing D.C. intern, Chandra Levy. Now, almost all captions feature the name of the Democrat congressman from California's 18th district, Gary Condit.

Allegations of flight attendant Anna Marie Smith have caused the spotlight to be aimed directly at Condit. The focus, too, has shifted from alleged infidelity to alleged criminality.

At the heart of Ms. Smith's claims is a request that she sign a draft declaration under penalty of perjury (California's version of an affidavit) that absolved the congressman of any "romantic relationship." The document was transmitted to Smith's lawyer with a cover letter signed by Condit's attorney. The new information brings a whole host of potential criminal violations into play, including obstruction of justice, subornation of perjury and witness tampering.

The seven-term congressman already had a cloud of suspicion hanging over him. To some extent the condition was self-induced. But secrecy only breeds more suspicion. Condit seemed to choose the clichéd path of a guilty suspect. He delayed. He refused to talk to the police. He shunned the press. He avoided the family of the missing intern. He hired a high-powered attorney to represent him.

Behavior of this type exacerbated misgivings on the part of the general population. More particularly, it fueled doubts with Condit's own constituents. In an uncharacteristic move, Condit canceled all of his public appearances on Independence Day, including his routine participation in the annual hometown parade. As time passed, the climate just seemed to grow more and more threatening.

Up until recently, Gary Condit was a very popular political figure. His voting record, unlike the records of some of the more conspicuous California politcos, more closely resembled a conservative southern Democrat. This is because Condit's constituents tend to have more in common with the rural Midwest and South, in terms of beliefs and lifestyle, than they do with fellow Californians in San Francisco or Hollywood.This may explain Condit's decisive victories against challengers to his seat since he first came to office in 1989.

Incumbents with momentum and power normally face ineffective opponents because the party apparatus, for strategic reasons, often concedes a district with a strong incumbent. In Condit's last election, his only meaningful challenge came from a libertarian. Condit ended up receiving 87% of the vote. Politicians refer to this as a cakewalk. But the equation has suddenly been transformed. The invincible has nowbecome vulnerable.

In many House battles of the past, the Republican Party looked upon Condit as an ally and was less motivated to mount a spirited effort against him. This will no longer be the case. The growing doubt over Condit's electability may affect his relationship with his own party also. He may even be challenged in the primary.

Undoubtedly, negative press accounts will ensure that the next contest will have greater visibility than usual. Larger amounts of money are likely to flow to Condit's opponents. More formidable challengers may arise, sensing the possibility of unseating him with greater ease.

Central California is a working class community dominated by the agricultural industry. Voters may be willing to ignore their representative's peccadilloes, but they are unlikely to be as forgiving when it comes to the appearance of criminality, dishonesty or disregard for family. It remains to be seen whether Condit will survivethe storm.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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