A Spouse, Who Needs It?

Freshman Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) has been happily married for 36 years — to his constituents.

“Having been out there so long, I used to be on the most eligible bachelors list,” the 57-year-old bachelor said of his early years in the Tennessee state legislature. “I don’t think you get promoted to the emeritus level. I think you become ineligible.”

In the olden days of politics, you couldn’t get too far without a wedding band. U.S. presidents and Capitol Hill politicians of the last century came almost exclusively as part of a tidy nuptial package — the handsome politician with an attractive, campaign-trailing spouse and a few kids in tow. Unmarried members of Congress, especially female members, were a rarity — usually a widow taking over a deceased husband’s seat.

But times and marital demographics are changing on Capitol Hill, marked by an increasingly accepted breed of Washington politicians: the spouseless.

In the 110th Congress, there are about 50 unmarried or divorced congressmen, ranging in age from 32 (North Carolina Republican Rep. Patrick McHenry) to 76 (Rep. Howard Coble, also a North Carolina Republican). Another dozen members are widowed. That means roughly 15 percent of Congress is either looking for love or content without it.

And freshman members are keeping that number on the rise. Besides Cohen, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), 42, is one of several single lawmakers to have entered the House chamber this January, and she makes no apologies for her marital status. Clarke, who happily orders takeout on a regular basis, shrugs off the idea of cooking for someone else. She’s often called “Miss Yvette” by her neighbors. Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.), the youngest new member at 36, beat out another single male to capture the seat. Six other freshmen are unmarried, divorced or widowed, although the group is about to lose one to the married column: Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). (The 37-year-old congresswoman was sworn in avec fiancé.)

That large number of spouseless members is likely due to one simple reality: More and more of their constituents are spouseless themselves. And so, the face of public office is beginning to look a lot more like the public.

Indeed, many Americans are getting married increasingly later in life, if at all. A 2006 survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that for the first time, single and unmarried households had surpassed married households in number.  

“The House reflects the American people,” notes Fred W. Beuttler, deputy historian for the U.S. House of Representatives.
“So presumably, as the American people are experiencing less of a traditional marriage, you’ll probably see the House reflect that over time.”

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) entered politics at the state level at the age of 21 and was elected to the House in 1995.
Kennedy, who will turn 40 in July, hasn’t settled down yet. His fellow Rhode Island delegate, Rep. Jim Langevin (D), is also unmarried. California congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D) assumed office 10 years ago as a single woman, and like her sister — Linda Sanchez (D), another California delegate — she is not married.  

And that’s just a few from the under-50 crowd.

As this slice of the congressional pie grows, the reality of dating while in office has become more accepted. Sometimes, being spouseless can even promote some positive buzz about the candidate, according to David Habbel, associate professor of politics at Utica College in Upstate New York.

“I certainly don’t think it’s any longer any kind of a negative,” said Habbel, who worked on the 2006 campaign of divorced freshman Rep. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.). “There were people during the campaign and they’d see [Arcuri’s] picture and they’d say, ‘Oh! Is he single?’”

For Cohen, the idea of limiting his social life to buffer his political image was never even a consideration. Far from it, he says — he’s had many girlfriends in Tennessee over the years.

Besides, as many a Washington scandal has proven, it isn’t single politicians whose activities prove most controversial.
Sometimes, being married is trickier in politics than being single. While no union is perfect, public office has a way of spotlighting the cracks in a very public way.

Three out of the four top-polling Republican presidential contenders or possible contenders — Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) — have seen endless ink devoted to their marital extracurricular activities. Former Republican Rep. Don Sherwood’s (Pa.) affair scandal helped tank his November reelection bid. And San Franciscans have been salivating over details of their married mayor’s affair with an also-married staffer since news of the transgression broke in February.

“I think a lot of people have seen that traditional ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ [scenario] as being something that was produced by Hollywood, and not reality,” Cohen said, pointing to the recent Gingrich revelations and what he described as “the hypocrisy” of politicians purporting to have the perfect family life.

“Even those people have gotten divorces once their spouses found out what kind of scoundrels they were living with,” he added.

The increasing prevalence of divorce, both among politicians and the general public, has made it easier for divorced candidates to win over voters and gain a presence in Congress.  

In fact, statistics point to an overwhelming constituency that understands the perils of marriage. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, those who wed face an uphill battle: The divorce rate is holding steady at about half of all unions.  

“If you have lots of people who are in this situation themselves, they’re going to have a different orientation,” Habbel said.  
“Nowadays most people don’t bat an eye” when it comes to a candidate who is divorced, he said. “Newt Gingrich certainly did catch some flak for how he handled his relationships, but generally speaking, social trends have made it more acceptable and less of a stigma [to be divorced],” Habbel said.  

That growing sense of acceptance could also be true for gay members. There are two openly gay members in the 110th Congress, Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). Baldwin is in a domestic partnership; Frank ranks among the spouseless camp. And while two out of 435 is hardly a significant sliver of Congress as  a whole, that number could well be higher, assuming there are some members who have not yet talked publicly about their sexual orientation.

When it comes to the demands of life inside the Washington fishbowl, there may be a certain Darwinian logic to the growing emergence of spouseless politicians. Given the Hill-by-week, campaign-trail-by-weekend schedule of a congressman, there are few lifestyles less conducive to marriage.  

“The campaign took up so much time there was just no way I could maintain a relationship,” Cohen said as he described breaking off a romance with a serious girlfriend last spring. “There just wasn’t time. I was married to my campaign.”

And, the congressman says, time constraints are just as bad now that the election is over. As an elected official, “it’s very, very difficult to have a social life of any kind whatsoever,” Cohen said.

But singles in Congress who would like to find that special someone need not despair. Members who enter the House single don’t always stay that way. In 2003, Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) married his girlfriend, Betsy, after six years as a House bachelor.  

Of course, it might be convenient to just start looking inside the House chamber for love.

“One of the logical implications here is that inevitably there are going to be relationships formed between some of these people who are single [members] in Congress,” Habbel mused.

Hasn’t he heard about Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) and Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.)?
 
“Oh really?” Habbel said. “That raises all kinds of other interesting scenarios.”