Spousal Battles an Occasional Novelty on Campaign Trail

Some couples fight over money and possessions in a courtroom. But for a select few, the battleground is on the campaign trail.

In some cases, loved ones will fight against one another over principle. Sometimes, a revelation comes in the midst of a divorce or afterwards, when a spouse finds that his or her best revenge is to challenge an ex's political career.

The first case of spouse versus spouse goes back to 1896, and wasn't really about marital alienation. Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon became the first woman state senator in Utah after defeating her husband, Angus Munn Cannon. The outspoken Hughes Cannon ran as a Democrat against her Republican husband, whom she was said to love dearly, but who probably didn't miss her too much because he had four other wives to keep him company.

But the most recent episode of political family feuding came in South Texas, where the wife of a state representative running for re-election jumped in the race to battle her husband during an impending divorce.

The incumbent, Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, a Democrat from Weslaco, Texas, briefly faced the possibility of a challenge by his wife, Jessica Reyes-Martinez. Reyes-Martinez filed for the March 2006 primary challenge in January, just 30 minutes before the deadline, but pulled out a month later ahead of the vote.

Reyes-Martinez, a homemaker, said she wanted to run against her soon-to-be ex-husband because he failed to meet constituents' needs and it was time for change.

“I decided to run because I felt the people needed to know the truth,” Reyes-Martinez said. “They needed somebody who was going to represent them, not themselves.”

Rep. Martinez, a freshman Democratic lawmaker who heads into his re-election bid unopposed, didn't experience much of an impact from his wife's challenge, but handled it seriously, said Scott Jenkines, legislative director for Martinez.

“It hasn’t had that much of an impact on his race because we consider all candidates as viable candidates regardless of who they are,” Jenkines said. “You just have to do what is best for your constituents.”

Reyes-Martinez did not write her full address on her filing application, which caused confusion with election officials and led to her withdrawal from the race. Despite the failed attempt to run against her husband, Reyes-Martinez said she plans to run again in 2008.

“I believe we need a change and we need somebody in there who is not going to use taxpayer money as their own personal piggy bank,” Reyes-Martinez said.

Martinez and Reyes-Martinez filed for divorce in 2005. Martinez alleges that Reyes-Martinez is unstable, citing a history of mental illness, while she claims that he mentally and physically abused her.

Public Service or Bitter Revenge?

Dr. Jerry Polinard, chairman of the department of political science at the University of Texas-Pan American, said despite the recent war of the Martinezes, spousal competition at the ballot box is not a common phenomenon.

“This was not just your normal race,” Polinard said. “Obviously, there was the dimension of their broken marriage. It had all the ear markings of a soap opera had it continued.”

Polinard said he couldn’t see how airing dirty laundry to voters would help Martinez or Reyes-Martinez, either publicly or in their personal dealings.

“It would have been a distraction,” Polinard said. “It was basically part of moving the domestic problems in the public arena.”

Another Texas race in 2004 showcased a public family feud when Democratic U.S. Rep. Charles Gonzalez faced a would-be challenge by his ex-wife. Gonzalez’s ex-wife, Becky Whetsone, a San Antonio marriage and family therapist, was hoping to challenge her ex-husband in the November race but was unable to qualify on the ballot.

Whetstone was trying to run as an independent against Gonzalez but came up 47 signatures short of the 500 required to get on the ballot. Whetstone, who made appearances on national television talking about the campaign, argued that her ex-husband, to whom she was married for five years, didn’t want to help Texans but was more focused on his political career.

Whetstone later wrote a tell-all book, "The Congressman’s Wife," and created a Web site, now shuttered, to help others share similar stories.

In 2000, a South Carolina state race drew national attention when state Rep. Shirley Hinson defeated her estranged husband, Jimmy, for her Republican seat.

The race hit during an impending divorce after a 32-year marriage. Rep. Hinson had said her husband was seeking revenge in the challenge but he cited better qualifications to serve in public office. She, however, prevailed and won a third term in office. She is still serving in that post.

Sometimes, an enemy's enemy becomes a friend. In at least two cases, the estranged spouses have helped their exes' opponents.

In a 2000 Maryland congressional race, things got heated when the spouse of Rep. Albert Wynn, the incumbent candidate, campaigned against him. His wife, Jessie Wynn, joined the GOP candidate's campaign and recorded a telephone message for voters.

“Hi. This is Jessie Wynn. Albert Wynn does not respect black women. He left me for a white woman. Please help us defeat Albert Wynn," the telephone message said.

Rep. Wynn, who at the time had served in Congress for eight years, won the race. He still serves today.

When Gov. Jon Corzine was running for his New Jersey seat last year, his ex-wife inadvertently joined the campaign of his Republican candidate. A quote from Joanne Corzine featured in The New York Times was used in a Doug Forrester commercial. Joanne Corzine said that her husband had "let his family down, and he'll probably let New Jersey down, too." Corzine and his ex-wife divorced in 2003 after a 33-year marriage. She blamed his political ambitions for the failure of their marriage.