On December 15, 2011, four male Minnesota state senators called a press conference. Its purpose was to issue a moral rebuke to a woman who wasn’t there, over an extramarital affair she’d had with a colleague. In the ensuing weeks, the four men would force the woman, the state’s first ever female majority leader, to move to an office far from theirs, on a different floor. Nobody would move into her vacant office before the end of the term, after which the woman would pack her things and leave the home she had shared with her husband of 18 years to move back in with her parents. Weeks later, the woman’s 64-year-old mother would die of breast cancer, only four months after her diagnosis.
Amy Koch still feels the echoes of the day of that press conference in her life. “People called it ‘The Scarlet Letter award ceremony,’” she tells The Daily Beast. “I didn’t watch it. I’ll never watch it.”
That was the day that news of Koch’s affair with a male senate staffer went public, that her colleagues turned on her, that Koch resigned from her leadership position among state senate Republicans and announced she wouldn’t seek reelection. The damage to her life and career felt complete, the shame all-consuming.
As a person, Amy Koch is strikingly likeable, sharp, warm, and thoughtful, even after what she now refers to as “the ordeal.” But for liberals in Minnesota circa 2011, Koch represented something much less endearing. For them, her scandal was a cocktail of poetic justice and schadenfreude. The marriage equality fight raged red-hot that Minnesota midwinter, and, Koch, an outspoken and brash conservative woman with an easy one-of-the-dudes laugh, had been instrumental in pushing for a state constitutional amendment barring legal same-sex unions. After the news of her own marital catastrophe upended the Minnesota statehouse, one gay activist wrote a cheeky letter to Koch, apologizing on behalf of gay people everywhere for ruining her marriage. The letter went viral. Liberal cable news had a lot of fun with the affair. Opinion pages of the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press were littered with morally superior missives against Koch. Any statement she made to the media was met with sneering, with moral judgement, with condemnation.
Amy Koch did a lot of reading as the scandal broke. She read the letters to the editor. She also read the comments. “Never read the comments,” she says.
She also read stories of other political sex scandals, searching for a blueprint of what her life would look like moving forward. “I wanted to know who survives this who doesn’t survive this. How do they approach things? Why does one person come back and another person doesn’t? And one thing I noticed, I didn’t really find any stories about women politicians…. there’s women on the other end of these scandals but there’s not one where it’s a woman politician. None that I found.”
Bereft of role models, she set out on her own path. “After my term was over, I disappeared,” she says. It took her months before she felt like she could return to church. Newspaper articles that mentioned the implosion of her career would give her a fresh wave of humiliation. She was positive that friends and neighbors who were supportive or kind to her were faking it, because everybody on the internet was so full of vitriol. At the end of the year, she used some of the money she got from the sale of her and her now-ex husband’s business during their divorce and bought a bowling alley and bar in Maple Lake, Minnesota, about a 15-minute drive from her hometown of Buffalo.
“I’ve thought a lot about it and I’ve had a lot of people—women and men—say to me it wouldn’t have happened to me if I were a man,” she says. “But I’m not sure if what happened to me happened because I’m a woman.”
The 2016 election has offered America a crash course in double standards when it comes to how men and women in the public eye are treated. If Donald Trump were a woman, for example, a 70-year-old obese woman with a sexual obsession with her adult son and the vocabulary of an elementary-school bully, would she have been the presidential nominee of this country’s conservative party? If somebody named Donna Trump had bragged about sexually assaulting men, would she be the president today? Would a woman who famously cheated on her husband be given a second chance in politics right away? We have our answer to the last question.
Trump himself has a colorful history with infidelity. His image of a “playboy” was so important to the president-elect in the 1980’s and 90’s that rumor has it he’d pose as his own spokesperson to plant stories about his sexual exploits in tabloids (acting in a way that would get one labeled a slut if one were female, turns out, is beneficial for men). He left his first wife and the mother of three of his children for his mistress amid a flurry of tabloid coverage. In 2005, he famously bragged to Billy Bush about grabbing women “by the pussy.” In December of that year, People Magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff alleges she was grabbed and forcibly kissed by Trump when she was at Mar-a-Lago to interview him for a story. During a presidential debate this year, Trump says he hasn’t even apologized to his wife. He hadn’t done anything.
Trump’s inner circle is lousy with men who have done worse than Amy Koch, and not suffered nearly the professional consequences. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, currently lobbying hard to be made Secretary of State, married his second cousin and began dating his second wife before he and his first wife divorced. While he was still married to his second wife (not to be confused with his second cousin), Giuliani allegedly carried on a long affair with his press secretary. In the late 1990’s, Giuliani met a woman named Judith (a new one, not the press secretary. Keep up.), and used his publicly-funded NYPD security detail to escort him to and from liaisons with the woman who would turn out to be his future third wife. He announced his separation to the public and to his second wife simultaneously, with a press conference.
David Petraeus, another rumored Secretary of State candidate, carried on a years-long affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell that was only discovered in 2012, the year after he was appointed head of the CIA. Broadwell and Petraeus had been exchanging love notes over unencrypted channels that were discovered by the FBI after Broadwell began cyberstalking a socialite named Jill Kelley. In 2015, Petraeus pled guilty to mishandling classified information with Broadwell, a misdemeanor that resulted in two years’ probation and a $100,000 fine. If he’s selected as Secretary of State, Petraeus will still be on probation when Trump is inaugurated on January 20, 2017, and will continue to be on probation for the first three months of his theoretical tenure as the person fourth in line to the Presidency.
Amy Koch did not mishandle classified information like David Petraeus. She did not obscure the use of public funds from taxpayers to hide her affair from the public, like Rudy Giuliani. She didn’t use prostitutes like David Vitter, or send suggestive pictures to a handful of people over and over again like Anthony Weiner. She didn’t get oral sex from a 22-year-old intern in the Oval Office like Bill Clinton. “Mine was kind of boring by comparison,” she says. “It was just an affair.”
Koch wonders if men who have been able to pick themselves from scandals like hers were able to do so because they blame themselves less for what happens to them, if they feel less shame in the aftermath than she did. “It took at least two years before I wasn’t just broken down about it,” she says. “Before I could talk about it without being sad and embarrassed. And a lot of that came from just being in the bar, being in the bowling alley, talking to people. Having good friends.”
While Trump, Petraeus, and Giuliani are inches from the most powerful position in the free world, Amy Koch is just now re-occupying normal. She’s sold the bowling alley in Maple Lake and this year started working full time as a political consultant with a small firm. She appears frequently on the charming Wrong About Everything podcast, a show about Minnesota politics featuring two Democrats and two Republicans who good-naturedly rib each other over beers. She’s been approached about running for office again, and has considered it. She’s not sure yet if that’s what she wants to do.
Koch still gets nasty comments about her scandal a couple of times per year, but no longer takes them to heart. She no longer believes that anybody has the perfect life or the perfect marriage. She’s made amends with three of the four men who held the “scarlet letter” press conference five years ago. One still refuses to speak with her.
The experience also taught the one-time gay marriage foe to evolve in her views.
“What ‘the ordeal’ did for me is it forced me to be crystal clear about why I am a Republican and why I am not,” Koch says. “I am firmer in my beliefs about the limited role of government and find it easier to reject bad ideas that distract us as a party from that. Regarding the marriage amendment, my experience taught me a simple truth: no one deserves to have their private selves be a part of public debate. That was an immediate lesson. What I have learned since being out of office, and after many conversations with gay friends, is that is exactly what the amendment felt like to them. I understand more fully the contours of their pain, that even though in the end they defeated the amendment, the very fact of their rights being debated was deeply hurtful.”
Men like Rudy Giuliani and David Petraeus have the chutzpah to pick themselves up from embarrassing scandal almost immediately and carry on after a perfunctory apology. Women like Amy Koch face a much harsher public response, one that takes years to lead back to the edges of the political arena, much less the West Wing.
Despite their dichotomous ideologies, it’s hard not to see parallels between Amy Koch and Hillary Clinton. Both women rose to unprecedented levels of achievement in their respective parties. Both were poised to continue their onward/upward trajectories. Both were thwarted by things that David Petraeus also did. Except now David Petraeus is being considered for Secretary of State, while Hillary Clinton hikes endlessly through the woods of Chappaqua, New York and Amy Koch is finally getting back to politics.
Amy Koch’s slow comeback, in its own way, makes a tiny crack in a different shade of glass ceiling than the one Hillary Clinton’s fans so loved to fantasize about shattering. Hillary’s, the legend was supposed to go, represented women being allowed to achieve. Amy Koch’s represents women being allowed to fail. In order to achieve true equality, women need to be free to be celebrated when they’re just as good as men, and forgiven when they’re just as bad.