It’s a testament to male dominance in Congress that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is the leading candidate to lead House Republicans for the second time in three years, even after his first effort imploded. And that former Congresswoman Renee Ellmers, rumored to be having an affair with McCarthy that was evidently a big reason for that implosion, is gone from Washington with hardly a trace.
Both were married, both brushed off the accusation, but that didn’t stop the rumor being spread by a major Republican donor, written about in influential blogs like RedState.com, and whispered about in the cloakroom. The difference in how the two people — who did not return calls for this article — caught up in the same rumor fared afterward is a parable of how Congress works, and doesn’t, in the #MeToo era.
Ellmers was once a rising star with a career as an ICU nurse married to a surgeon in Dunn, North Carolina. She didn’t like what she saw of Obamacare and decided to run for Congress. A happy conservative, telegenic, quick on her feet, a people person, she upset a seven-term incumbent in 2010. She won reelection easily until 2016, when suddenly she wasn’t conservative enough any longer. She was primaried by several candidates in a redrawn district. One opponent ran an ad alluding to the alleged affair that stated, “I'm not running against Renee because she's been unfaithful to her husband; I'm running against Renee because she's been unfaithful to her constituents.”
Ellmers isn’t running for anything these days, much less for Speaker. She lost the 2016 Second District primary by 30 points to George Holding, the representative from the 13th favored by good ole boys in Washington although he didn’t even live in the district.
Now, Ellmers doesn’t work in the state she represented. She oversees Region 4 of the Department of Health and Human Services in Atlanta, Georgia, worthy work for a talented public servant but far from the center of politics As for McCarthy, with Paul Ryan stepping out of the picture, he is a good bet to succeed him in January. It’s good to be male.
In 2015, the allegation of an affair was one of those Washington secrets that gets talked about but no one reports on until North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones wrote a letter to the leadership days before the vote asking that any candidate with “misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself” withdraw. With that sentence, the sub rosa story went rosa. The Washington Examiner published the headline “Specter of sex scandal injected into GOP leadership race.” Ellmers was quoted in The Hill saying, ““I can’t vote for someone [McCarthy] who doesn’t ask for my vote. I’m apparently not high on his priority list,” making the race look like a student council election where the star quarterback and the head cheerleader turn on each other. Minutes before the vote, McCarthy shocked the caucus and dropped out, saying that the party needed a fresher face than his.
Since then, some things have changed. Post-Trump, the right wing Freedom Caucus makes no pretense it cares about sexual indiscretions. Stormy who? They might vote against McCarthy, but not over family values. On the other hand, awareness that sex at work often ends badly —whether consensual or not, with or without sexual harassment — is rising.
But on Capitol Hill, not so much. Even Hollywood is more evolved than Congress, which writes its own rules. Power is absolute and women, willing and unwilling, get caught up in it. If you don’t believe that a former insurance salesman presiding over a mahogany-paneled office with a wall of grip and grin photos reflecting the twinkling lights of the Capitol dome believes the job comes with benefits, you’re wrong. Washington is the kind of place where if Mitch McConnell and George Clooney walk into a fundraiser, it will be a close call who attracts more attention.
Not only do members have affairs with impunity, but if one goes wrong or there’s harassment involved the rules are heavily tilted to exonerate the member, silence the victim, and fund the settlement with taxpayer dollars. Have an affair as a staffer and you best become Newt’s next wife, or find yourself jobless when it ends.
Almost everything happens in secret. Rep. Blake Farenthold, for instance, hung on for three years after a payment in 2015 of $84,000 in hush money to a former staffer he had “wet dreams” and “sexual fantasies” about—all in jest, he explained when the payoff came out under the glare of #MeToo. He left this month but he’s yet to pay back a dime of the $84,000.
An alleged consensual affair shouldn’t necessarily decide a leadership race. It hurts two families, not the body politic. But it’s very troubling to look at the diverging political fates of the two people supposedly involved. Ellmers paid a much heavier price than McCarthy, losing her seat in the House and leaving Washington. Just two nights ago, there was McCarthy, the putative next Speaker of the House, pictured everywhere arriving in his tux at the state dinner for President Emmanuel Macron, one of only three members invited.
The talented Ellmers is more fortunate than many women on Capitol Hill. For others, complain and you might as well tack a scarlet Do Not Hire sign on your back. No other office wants you.
It’s 2018 but Congress exists as a continuous loop of Mad Men episodes where a whiff of scandal sends a secretary to the typing pool while the boss remains the boss. As yet, legislation that would change all this has not passed. There’s sexual harassment training of the sort you’d get in a high school health class.
Women: For your career and your happiness, know that Congress remains stuck in 1950, a sanctuary city for men and a hostile place for women. Don’t work there while female.