Usually Affable and Open, Condit's Lips Are Sealed

California Democrats practically trampled each other to get to the microphones and criticize the Bush administration's handling of the state's energy crisis. But one hung back, silent as his colleagues launched salvo after salvo.

When Rep. Gary Condit made an early exit from the news conference last week, the reporters who followed him weren't interested in his views on energy. They wanted to know about 24-year-old Chandra Levy, a Condit constituent who disappeared in early May after finishing an internship at the federal Bureau of Prisons.

As usual, Condit ducked the questions.

"How you doing? You doing all right? Good for you," Condit said to the cameras, a tight smile affixed to his face as he quickly covered the 30 yards from the news conference to the Capitol, leaving reporters at the entrance.

The normally affable and open Condit has remained publicly silent about Levy, even after her mother, Susan, was quoted by The Washington Post as saying her daughter acknowledged in April that she and Condit were seeing each other. Condit called Susan Levy on Saturday, but she would not talk to him without an attorney present, according to Mike Lynch, the congressman's chief of staff.

Through his office, Condit, who is married, has described Levy as a "good friend" but denied anything more intimate. Condit recently hired well-known San Francisco area lawyer Joseph W. Cotchett, who has been aggressively challenging the veracity of media reports linking the two romantically.

Police have spoken to Condit, but say they consider Levy's disappearance a missing persons case, not a crime.

Levy's parents, who also have hired an attorney, traveled to Washington on Tuesday and planned to hold a news conference Wednesday to discuss the case.

While police search for Levy, Condit, 53, lives on the fringes of the very public world of Congress. He attends the events he should -- votes, news conference, committee hearings -- but says nothing in public.

Lynch said his boss would speak out at "an appropriate moment." He turned down a request for an interview with the congressman.

"It is irresponsible to discuss the details of an open police investigation on the airwaves," he said.

A California Democrat who knows Condit said the congressman also is concerned the media would twist his words.

Still, pressure has been building for some public statement. "Condit would better serve his constituents by squarely facing the public and its questions," Condit's usually supportive hometown paper, The Modesto Bee, said in a June 8 editorial.

Condit's district is part of California's agriculture-rich Central Valley. His constituents include culturally conservative Democrats with roots in the South and a growing number of Latinos.

Condit received 67 percent of the votes last year. So far, the Levy case does not appear to have diminished his support.

"I think an injustice is being done," said Jacque MacDonald of Merced, who praised Condit for his help after her daughter was murdered. "He's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. But here, people love him."

A former opponent, Republican Carol Whiteside, said Condit "understands the district and he does a good job of representing the district."

Born in Oklahoma and the son of a Baptist minister, Condit has been in politics since 1972, when at 24 he was elected a city councilman in Ceres, Calif., a suburb of Modesto. He later became mayor, then served in the California Assembly.

He came to Congress in 1989, winning a special election to replace Rep. Tony Coehlo, who resigned following disclosures that he failed to report a loan.

He and his wife, Carolyn, purchased a condominium in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, although Mrs. Condit lives mainly at their home in Ceres. Their two adult children, Chad, 33, and Cadee, 25, both work for California Gov. Gray Davis, to whom Condit is close politically.

Condit travels frequently to his district, where he rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

A conservative "blue dog" Democrat, Condit backed President Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut this year, and has voted for prayer in public schools and relaxing environmental standards in years past.

He is close friends with former Republican presidential candidate and House Budget Chairman John Kasich of Ohio. The two have attended Rolling Stones and Pearl Jam concerts together.

Until recently, Condit was best known in Washington and Sacramento for defying Democratic leaders. In 1995, when House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., refused to appoint to negotiate on a bill Condit backed but most Democrats opposed, he accepted an appointment by then-Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Gephardt and other members of Congress have voiced sympathy for Condit and the Levy family.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., recently offered Condit a handshake in a Capitol hallway and asked how he was doing. "I'm fine. I'm fine," Condit said, moving away from a group of nearby reporters.