Politicians’ private lives reflect public integrity

Staff Writer

This summer, while Pepperdine students were enjoying work, recreation and travel, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was involved in some extra-curricular activities of his own. Although married, he admitted to an affair with Telemundo52 news anchor Mirthala Salinsas. If the mayor’s shameless cheating and lack of commitment does not trouble voters, it should.

In June, Villaraigosa’s wife of more than 20 years, Corina, filed for divorce after discovering her husband’s on-going relationship with Salinas. This was not the first time her husband had an affair.

In 1994, the night of his election to the California Assembly, Villaraigosa left town with the wife of one of their close friends. He endured supporter outrage and pressed on to become Assembly Speaker in 1998 and Los Angeles Mayor in 2005. But political analysts again question his ability to keep voter confidence and possibly upgrade his political influence to the California governorship in 2010. Villaraigosa is not the first big-city mayor to overcome criticism of his extra-marital activities.

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, his successor Gavin Newsom and San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales have all survived highly scrutinized affairs. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is also campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, has outlived public discontent with his personal life riddled with infidelity and divorce. According to a RealClearPolitics poll, he leads all Republican presidential contenders with 28 percent of voter support.

Mayor Villaraigosa recently said, “I don't believe that the details of my personal life are relevant to my job as mayor.” He should think again. As J.C. Watts, a political commentator, once said, “character is doing what's right when nobody's looking.” While actions in the private and public spheres may be separate, character is consistent in both.

Just as cheating in private business deals or on taxes reveals a dishonest disposition, marital infidelity reveals a person’s inability to honor serious commitments. Voters should be slow to trust promises from politicians who fail to keep vows made to partners in either business or marriage. Experts would have much difficulty proving that private integrity, or a lack thereof, always carries over to public action, but consider two cases.

In 1998, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich was forced to resign after repeated ethics violations, including federal tax law abuse. He also recently admitted to cheating on his first and second wives. Still, according to a RealClearPolitics poll, Gingrich, who might run for the 2008 presidency, owns 8.5 percent of Republican voter support.

Former President Bill Clinton had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Later, the House impeached him for perjury before a grand jury and obstruction of justice in hearings related to sexual harassment charges from former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. Clinton also lost his license to practice law because of his role in the Whitewater and Jones investigations. And yet, according to a 2001 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, Clinton had a 65 percent approval rating upon leaving office. Marital affairs don’t always equate to deceit in public issues, but voters should question their faithfulness to politicians who are unfaithful to their spouses.

Politicians who lack good judgment in their marital lives may lack the same in public service. Elected officials who leave a spouse for a seemingly more attractive alternative just might stray when opportunities for power, popularity, or wealth in politics entice them. Commitments to voters, like to their spouses, may take a backseat when temptation arises and pressure mounts.

Voters should be alarmed when public servants betray commitments repeatedly and should critically assess the character of politicians. They should support those who consistently exhibit honesty and fierce loyalty to their obligations in both their private and public lives.

  If Mayor Villaraigosa’s level of commitment to his wife mirrors his commitment to integrity in his public service, voters should think twice about lending him their support.