10.13.10

Christine at the 'Frat House'

Voters get their best look yet at Christine O’Donnell in tonight’s Senate debate. Rebecca Dana talks to her neighbors about her burning ambition, feuds, and the Christian rocker she lives with.

The Daily Beast's Rebecca Dana talks to her neighbors about her burning ambition and feuds, her frequent visitors ("the walls upstairs are very thin"), her habit of smoking cigars and drinking wine on her porch in her pajamas, the Christian rocker she lives with, and how she once started a fire.

Before Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell came out of far-right field to win the Republican nomination for Joe Biden’s old Senate seat, the New Jersey native was just “a sweet girl” on North Lincoln Street, in downtown Wilmington, Delaware.

“She baked me cookies once,” said Paul Angelini, her old neighbor in the city’s Little Italy district. He remembered O’Donnell as sweet, but the cookies as inedible. “Chocolate chip. They were burnt. They were terrible, really."

Angelini lived with a few pals in a three-bedroom rowhouse nicknamed “the frat house,” and O’Donnell would swing by from time to time to chat. “We probably flirted a little bit with her, and she flirted a little bit back, that sort of thing.”

She would lounge on her front porch in her pajamas some weekends, smoking cigars and drinking wine with a girlfriend. She doted on her cats, but was not always fastidious about her housekeeping, according to neighborhood gossip passed along by her former housekeeper, Pam. She feuded bitterly with the woman next door. And, neighbors couldn’t help but note, for a candidate who’s been so vocally opposed to any pre-marital sexual activity, O’Donnell had frequent overnight visits from her boyfriend Brent, a Philadelphia lawyer who bought her house just before it went into foreclosure and still owns it to this day.

Since her primary win brought intense media scrutiny on her past social and financial dealings, O’Donnell has gone from being a person who craved the spotlight—crusading against masturbation and talking about her youthful Wiccan dalliances on Politically Incorrect—to one who shuns it. Wednesday night she will debate her Democratic opponent Chris Coons, whom she trails by double digits in recent polls, exposing O’Donnell to a curious national audience that has subsisted lately on ethics investigations and video clips from her outspoken past.

During much of the period she spent on North Lincoln Street, O’Donnell was unemployed. Now 41, she rarely talked politics during lazy afternoons at the frat house, but friends and acquaintances say she’s long dreamed of the national stage. Many in Wilmington encouraged her to get involved locally, to join Biden’s beloved St. Anthony’s Church, to start small. But O’Donnell preferred to go her own route. She wanted the big time—fast.

This year, to the awe of some of these old acquaintances (and many stalwarts of Republican politics), she got it. Sarah Palin embraced O’Donnell as a “ mama grizzly,” and an influx of Tea Party cash helped propel her to victory over well-known Republican Mike Castle. Now she’s sucking up much of the oxygen in this election cycle—dogged by reporters and ethics groups, trailed by adoring fans, parodied on Saturday Night Live.

Where’s it all leading? A Monmouth University poll released Oct. 12 has O’Donnell 19 points behind Coons. An earlier poll, from her alma mater Fairleigh Dickinson, had her down 17 points. She has raised $2 million since her primary victory, but 36 percent of likely Republican voters consider her unqualified for the job, including some officials in the state GOP. On Tuesday, a volunteer lingering at the campaign’s brand new headquarters, on the second floor of an office park in suburban Wilmington, said he had just come from phone-banking for the candidate that morning, where he was one of only two people making calls.

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But even as O’Donnell lags in the polls, she has won fame—or, at least, infamy—that past acquaintances say she has coveted since her youth, when she was one of three “announcers” who read school bulletins at Moorestown High School. “She wasn’t a real high-profile kid,” said her old high-school principal, Dennis Fyffe, but she was active in the drama guild, attractive, and relatively popular.

Most gallingly, in the neighbor’s view, O’Donnell had frequent visitors, “and the walls upstairs are very thin.”

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“She always seemed to be very, very determined and very driven,” said a fellow student from the Class of ‘87. “What seems surprising to me is not her fame but the sensationalistic aspect of it.” He recalled hanging out with O’Donnell during their 15th class reunion, watching as a former nerd, “one of those 5.0 grade point average types” got drunk and bent her ear for hours, while she listened patiently. She skipped the afterparty that night and headed straight home.

The magnitude of O’Donnell’s ambition irked some of her old neighbors. Kathleen Benedetto, who still lives next door to O’Donnell’s former home, said she never saw the candidate, an avowed Catholic, at St. Anthony’s—until she launched her first campaign, a failed challenge against Biden in 2008, for which neighbors believe she mortgaged her car and home. That year, O’Donnell and her family walked in the church’s Procession of Saints, wearing campaign T-shirts and handing them out along the way, “like it was a parade for them,” Benedetto said. “She always had this grand idea of moving to Washington. She never bothered to get to know anyone around here.”

Benedetto, a life-long Democrat with reverence for the vice president (who walks every year with his family in the Procession of Saints), has a long list of complaints about O’Donnell. She once left soup on the stove and started a fire, Benedetto said. She used to miss the trash can when she disposed of her cat litter, leaving a mess on the porch. Most gallingly, in the neighbor’s view, O’Donnell had frequent visitors, “and the walls upstairs are very thin.”

Both Benedetto and another neighbor who asked to have her name withheld said they saw O’Donnell lounging, clothed, with a man on top of her, on O’Donnell’s bright yellow and orange flowered couch. Both said these events happened during the daytime, when O’Donnell would sometimes leave her front door open. Neither minded in the slightest at the time, they said, and the latter of the two neighbors thinks generally well of the candidate. Both said they get a little chuckle on hearing her strict stance against sexual activity outside of the confines of marriage.

“To me, she never said anything nuts,” said Matt Cross, another neighbor and a teacher at a nearby Catholic school. Cross and his wife attended a housewarming party O’Donnell threw for herself when she moved in, and were flattered to receive a gift basket for their newborn son—including a book, a teddy bear, and a onesie—just as she was moving out.

Benedetto and others tell a more colorful story of O’Donnell’s exodus. Her old boyfriend, Brent Vasher, the nephew of her former aide David Keegan (who has since gone on to accuse O’Donnell of misusing campaign funds and failing to pay her staff; O’Donnell told the Dover Post that Keegan merely neglected to “submit receipts”), bought the house when she was about to lose it to the IRS. Vasher, who declined to comment for this story, donated $400 to O’Donnell’s 2008 campaign and was also listed on its payroll.

Eventually, their relationship ended and O’Donnell moved out of the house. Benedetto recalls standing on the porch, watching Vasher call O’Donnell and tell her she had one day to come retrieve her things. She and another neighbor then watched him move every item in the home out onto the sidewalk, where passersby took furniture, Christmas decorations, and other items. The following day, he took what was left to the dump, Benedetto said. Two weeks after that, O’Donnell drove up with a girlfriend to find the house empty and her stuff gone.

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Until recently, according to papers filed with the Federal Election Commission, O’Donnell ran her campaign out of a small brick home in the Greenville Place apartment complex outside Wilmington. She shares the combined home/headquarters with campaign staffer David Hust, a heavy-set Christian rocker with a pudding-cup beard and no previous political experience listed online. “He's a huge advocate for antiabortion laws, very pro-life,” said Stephen Shumaker, a friend of Hust’s from college who said he would be “shocked” if the two were living together, as the O’Donnell campaign reported to the FEC, given Hust’s background as a “holy guy.”

Hust answered the door to their home Monday afternoon in a baby blue gingham shirt and a silver belt buckle the size and shape of a Nerf football. “We have tunnel vision right now,” he said. He declined to say more because, “I’m not authorized to speak to the press.”

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Right now, no one on the O’Donnell campaign is authorized to speak to the national press, and the candidate herself has observed a moratorium on interviews since the media turned a klieg light on her after her upset of Castle this fall, making exceptions only for local outlets.

Even in the current access-vacuum, there’s been plenty of fodder to drive coverage, including a trove of bombastic or untrue statements from O’Donnell’s earlier life. She claimed on a resume posted on LinkedIn to have attended Oxford, when she appears to have only taken a Phoenix Institute course held in one of the university’s classrooms. She received her college degree from Fairleigh Dickinson just this September, after a protracted dispute over unpaid tuition bills. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington have accused her of a raft of ethical violations, including using her campaign funds as a personal credit account, to pay rent and for small personal expenses, like dinner and bowling. In 2009, she reported only $5,800 in personal income. The O’Donnell campaign called CREW “a left-wing organization” and the charges a “political ploy.”

O’Donnell acknowledged she didn’t study at Oxford and said she was not responsible for creating the LinkedIn profile. The DNC released another online profile for O’Donnell that lists her as having received a certificate in “Post Modernism in the New Millennium” from the “ University of Oxford.” ZoomInfo, the site that hosts the profile, verified that it was authored by O’Donnell, an assertion the O’Donnell campaign has not addressed.

The O’Donnell campaign did not respond to several calls and emails for comment.

In part for these reasons, many Republicans active in Delaware state politics have been slow to embrace O’Donnell as their candidate and tepid in their enthusiasm even after they commit to supporting her.

Before O’Donnell won the nomination, Delaware GOP Chairman Tom Ross said, “She’s not a viable candidate for any office in the state of Delaware. She could not be elected dog catcher." After she won, he told ABC News, “Now my job is—whether I like it or not or indifferent—is to go out there and work just as hard to get each and every Republican that the voters have selected elected in a very difficult environment.”

But for O’Donnell’s fans, none of this stuff matters. A trickle of supporters filtered through the old O’Donnell headquarters this week, greeting Hust at the door. A very patient older woman who gave her name as Barb said she came in from out of state to volunteer. Another supporter said there’s a wait list for lawn signs and bumper stickers.

Angelini, a mechanical contractor, is “not real big into politics,” but says he’ll vote for O’Donnell because “she seems like a normal human being, which is better than most of the politicians I know.” He even stole an enormous O’Donnell campaign road sign, featuring a giant picture of the candidate in black suit and pearls, and hung it from the awning of his home. One of the other neighbors recently came by and put a few light scratch marks across O’Donnell’s larger-than-life smile.

Benjamin Sarlin and Samuel Jacobs contributed to this report.

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.