09.07.10

The Political Husbands of 2010

Nearly 300 women filed this year to run for Congress. So how do their spouses balance the largely uncharted territory? Sandra McElwaine on the way they do it.

It's one of the trickiest jobs in American politics: the male spouse. And with a record number of female candidates running this fall, more husbands are navigating this treacherous territory.

For a male political spouse, campaigning is a delicate balancing act: You must appear supportive—without seeming wimpy. (Alaska's First Dude Todd Palin took care of the kids, but showcased his masculine credentials with late night snowmobile rides.) You must stand by your wife's side—but not overshadow. (Note to Bill: sometimes less is more.)

Gallery: Political Husbands

And, clearly, some perform better than others.

Nikki Haley's husband helped fend off allegations that she'd been having extramarital affairs. Nancy Pelosi's husband picks the House Speaker's clothes. Carly Fiorina's husband, who occasionally doubles as her bodyguard, carries a gun. And the husband of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords stays in touch from outer space.

With more women than ever before seeking House and Senate seats— according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutger's University, 36 women filed for the Senate and 262 women filed for the House this year—there is a record crop of spouses to watch.

Giffords' husband, Mark E. Kelly, has his own stellar career. Although the two live in different cities, different time zones and, sometimes, in different atmospheres, they share equal billing wherever they go. Commander Kelly is an astronaut, who first traveled into space in 2001. (He will command the Endeavour on the final mission of the Space Shuttle program next year, and when he lands on the international space station, he is scheduled to meet his twin brother Scott, who is in charge of the operation—the only set of twins to have met in space.)

Even if Kelly is rocketing through space while Giffords is fundraising or voting in the House of Representatives, the couple remains in constant contact. Email, he says, is crucial to their lives. "On the space station I can call out but no one can call in," he says. "So in space we email a lot. We're always in touch, and I am always on my Blackberry."

Samuel P. Jacobs: The Dems’ Cold Cash CalculusFor some, the role is more difficult to adjust to. Jim Schroeder decided to form the Denis Thatcher Society, a support group for male political spouses, when he came to Washington in 1972, the spouse of Democrat congresswoman Pat Schroeder from Colorado. The group, whose password was "Yes, dear," included the husbands of Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O'Connor. "There was a real sense of camaraderie and I learned a lot," says Steve Lowey, who joined shortly after his wife Nita, a New York Democrat, was elected in 1988. (The congresswoman is up for re-election this year.) "I learned a husband's role is very important in the campaign," he says. But "once your wife has won, it's her position and nobody cares about you. You walk one step behind; you do not answer questions and, in Washington, you're nothing—get used to it."

Fiorina's husband Frank, a former top executive at AT&T, took early retirement in 1998, just as her career was taking off, and he has since become her confidant/driver/ bodyguard. In applying for a concealed weapons permit for a Glock 9mm ten years ago, Frank argued that his wife was "very visible" as the head of Hewlett-Packard, writing on the application that that there had been incidents in which CEOs "have been targets, including right in our community," according to SFGate.com.

Although he has appeared unwavering at her side, nursing her through her bout with cancer last year, he seems perplexed by his current status. In the past, he "felt useful," he told the New York Times. Now, he added, he worried that "I won't be able to be as involved as I was."

"I learned a husband's role is very important in the campaign," he says. But "once your wife has won, it's her position and nobody cares about you. You walk one step behind; you do not answer questions and, in Washington, you're nothing."

Haley's husband, Michael, for his part, played a pivotal role in his wife's campaign when he defended her against allegations of infidelity, allowing himself to be used in a number of her campaign ads—one half of the happy couple strolling hand-in-hand on a beach. Haley, a Republican contender for South Carolina Governor, met her husband at Clemson College during her freshman year, and soon convinced him to change his name from Bill to his middle name, Michael. "He didn't look like a Bill," was her explanation, according to the Washington Post. Like some political spouses, he supports his wife's ambitions but avoids the press. She, however, won't have to depend on him for security—she has her own gun permit and, presumably, packs her own heat.

Playing too big a role in his wife's campaign, however, can be a problem as it became for political advisor and strategist Stanley Greenberg, who ran his wife's first congressional campaign in 1990. Although his wife, Democrat Rosa de Lauro, went on to win the Connecticut seat, Greenberg describes his wife's campaign as "the toughest campaign I've ever done."

"It was impossible to be both husband and advisor," he recalls. "I promised not to do it again—I never have." Greenberg now spends most of his time advising other high-profile clients. "Rosa is deeply involved in politics, and I travel most of the time, so we try get together on weekends at home," he says. "That works for us."

Steve Schultz, the banker husband of Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has chosen to stay out of the spotlight to concentrate on the role as Mr. Mom. "I don't get into politics," he says. "I'll go to Washington for a couple of events each year and put up signs during an election but that's about it." Instead, he ferries their 6-year-old daughter and 11-year-old twins to and from school, and readily admits that he is the chief cook and bottle-washer. "If they're going to eat, I make it," he says. Perhaps not surprisingly, Debbie frequently refers to him as "St. Steve" and he agrees that they operate in different spheres. "We're made from two different molds. I'm definitely not a politician. That's why we get along."

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.