Sex, Sleaze Star in 2010 U.S. Political Circus: Albert R. Hunt

In the U.S. federalist system, states usually compete for business, federal funds or tourists. This year, there is another fierce competition, as South Carolina and Nevada do battle for the title of “State With the Kookiest Politics.”

Elections in these states have been marked by crazy-quilt charges of hypocrisy, sexual peccadilloes, candidates who face felony charges and express way-out-of-the-mainstream views. The Silver and Palmetto States are an antidote to those who worried U.S. politics had become too programmed, predictable.

To be sure, today’s rascals aren’t as colorful as yesterday’s, especially those in the South, with its tradition of good ole boys, or the big cities, with their political machines. Louisiana and Illinois were perpetual leaders.

Chicago featured leaders with names like “Fast Eddie,” or there was the time a young reformer, Abner Mikva, walked into a ward office to volunteer and was told, “we don’t want nobody that nobody sent.” A local ward fundraising dinner was a marvelous mixture of Damon Runyon and “The Godfather.” The city council and state legislature often served as the farm clubs for the state penitentiary.

In Louisiana, even after the departure of Huey “Kingfish” Long and his brother “Uncle Earl,” there was Governor Edwin Edwards, who once declared he would lose his job only if he was “found in bed with a dead girl or live boy.” After he was acquitted in one criminal trial, it was revealed that some members of the jury had stolen towels from the hotel where it had been sequestered. Edwards concluded that he had been judged by a “jury of my peers.” He now resides at a federal correctional institution.

Blagojevich Trial

These states today are pale copies of those glory days. In Illinois, former Governor Rod Blagojevich, “Blago,” is currently under indictment for allegedly trying to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama; he’s more about antics than authenticity. From his cell, Edwards surely sneered as Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter, a self-styled religious conservative, trotted out his wife when he had to acknowledge spending quality time with hookers.

They can’t compete with Nevada or South Carolina, which eight years ago put in the governor’s mansion the dynamically attractive conservative Republican Mark Sanford, and his equally bright and attractive wife. They sent out Kennedy-esque Christmas cards with their four boys. Then last year, Sanford, mysteriously missing, had to confess he had been with his mistress in Argentina.

Avoiding Impeachment

One reason he avoided impeachment by the Republican legislature was that the next in line, Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, had his own eccentricities, most notably the night he was caught driving more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) an hour on the interstate highway and used his state-issued radio to say he was on official business; he didn’t get a ticket.

Weeks before this month’s gubernatorial primary, the state seemed finally headed to normalcy, with Republican frontrunner Nikki Haley, an impressive, Indian-American state legislator. Then two Republican operatives charged they had affairs with Haley. Bauer and other Republicans, while professing their outrage, called on Haley to take a lie-detector test about her denials.

South Carolina Democrats

The victorious Democratic candidate for the Senate seat was the unknown Alvin Greene, an unemployed Army veteran facing a pending felony charge for showing obscene photos to a University of South Carolina student. He is rejecting pleas from party leaders to step aside.

Then there’s Joe Wilson, the Republican House member who last September screamed “you lie” to the president of the United States during an address to a joint session of Congress.

Nevada is holding its own. Incumbent Governor Jim Gibbons was defeated in a Republican primary, as his behavior ultimately proved to be too out there for even this anything-goes state.

In 2006, a cocktail waitress accused him of sexual assault; he said he caught her when she tripped. Then, in 2008, he kicked his wife Dawn out of the governor’s mansion. In a filing for divorce, she accused him of having an affair. He denied affairs, either with a woman to whom he sent 867 text messages or the Playboy model he accompanied to a rodeo in Reno. The governor insisted he hadn’t slept with anyone, his wife included, for 15 years. Separately, the lieutenant governor, Brian Krolicki, was indicted for misappropriating funds, though the case was dropped.

Ethics Panel Inquiry

It took Republican Senator John Ensign, though, to put Nevada in serious contention with South Carolina. While living in a self-styled Christian group house on Capitol Hill, he had an affair with the wife of a top aide and allegedly sought to cover it up. His parents gave $96,000 to the ex-employee, his wife and two kids; Ensign called it severance pay, others hush money. The figure seemed odd until it was disclosed that both of Ensign’s parents gave $12,000 to each of the four members of the aide’s family, the maximum allowed without having to file a gift tax return with the Internal Revenue Service. Ensign is under investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Then there is the race for Nevada’s other Senate seat. It features Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who Jon Ralston, the top political analyst in the state, says is “about as popular in Nevada as a sports betting ban.” The Democratic incumbent is up against the upset winner of the Republican primary, conservative activist Sharron Angle, who Ralston says is an “out-of-the-mainstream loon.”

Smell the Tourists

Reid is a Washington insider who foolishly allowed his son to run for governor on the same ticket this year, and has frequent foot-in-mouth afflictions: In 2008, he welcomed the construction of a new visitors’ center for Congress by saying he’d no longer have to “smell” the tourists coming into the Capitol.

He was a goner until the Republicans nominated Angle this month. She wants the U.S. to withdraw from the United Nations and privatize Social Security, calls the Department of Education “unconstitutional” and has embraced the Church of Scientology’s prison-drug treatment, which focuses on “sauna and massage treatments” for inmates.

One upside to the kooky contests is that the elections this year will be more entertaining; unless you live in South Carolina or Nevada.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Albert R. Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.

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