A sleepy race for a California Legislature seat is turning into a fractious family feud that pits a former top staffer to Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, against the congressman’s wife.
“Actually,” said Scott Wilk, McKeon’s district director from 2001 to 2006, “she’s running against me.” He insisted he was in the contest first.
So it has been in the bitter early going of a Republican primary still five months away but already splintering longtime allies of McKeon, who has served in the House since 1993. The fight has now devolved into the personal.
Wilk said the congressman didn’t call to inform him that Patricia McKeon would challenge him for the California Assembly seat. Instead, the lawmaker dispatched an aide to Wilk’s home at 9 p.m. to break the news, Wilk said. This, after Wilk’s family had donated $6,000 to McKeon’s campaign committee over the last five years.
“I started laughing because honestly that’s a scenario that never crossed my mind,” Wilk said. “Her political acumen stops at seating charts.”
Wilk, 52, is a longtime political staffer who serves on his local community college board, has been chief of staff to two state legislators, and made an aborted run for the Assembly in the mid-1990s. Patricia McKeon, 69, has been a “full-time mother” (of six), president of a local PTA, and a community volunteer, according to a letter she sent to supporters. She’s been married to Buck McKeon for 49 years.
Rep. McKeon has already thrown his considerable weight behind his wife’s run. He hosted a fundraiser for her last fall in Washington, blocks from the Capitol.
“His main role has been that of a supportive husband,” said Alissa McCurley, the congressman’s spokeswoman. Patricia McKeon and her campaign declined to comment for this story. Wilk said they are running a purposefully stealthy campaign.
“The congressman has told people in the district that he plans to lock her in the room, raise all of her money, and win it on her name ID,” Wilk said.
Neither Wilk nor McKeon has filed a fundraising report yet, though McKeon has seeded her campaign with $40,000 of her own money, state records show.
The stature of McKeon’s husband is already a factor in the race. One of Wilk’s early backers reneged out of fear of offending the congressman. State Sen. Tony Strickland said he withdrew his endorsement after launching his own bid for Congress to replace retiring Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif.
“A lot of folks in the delegation feel uncomfortable going all-out to help me when I’m going against Buck’s wife,” Strickland said.
“You take your wife’s races a little more personal than even your own,” added Strickland, speaking from experience as his wife followed him into the state Legislature. Strickland said Wilk, whom he described as an “old friend,” was “very understanding.”
Wilk still has backing from Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., a former boss who is something of a kingmaker in California’s conservative circles. “He impresses the hell out of me and that was one of the easiest endorsements I’ve made in my whole career,” McClintock said of his former chief of staff. McClintock said he hasn’t spoken about the primary with McKeon.
The race marks Patricia McKeon’s first bid for office. In the letter to supporters, she said her decision to run for state office came when she was forced to pay 10 cents for a paper grocery bag. “I reached my tipping point,” she wrote. (The bag fee was a local levy, however, not the result of a state law.)
McKeon wrote that she overcame any “sensitivities to voters seeing two McKeons on the ballot” by realizing “we are two separate people—with different perspectives and strengths.”
McKeon has spent a decade serving as her husband’s campaign treasurer. She was paid nearly $47,000 in the first nine months of 2011. From 2001 to 2006, she received more money from her husband’s treasury—a total of $263,168—than any other congressional relative, according to a 2007 study by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“It’s not illegal, but it’s certainly unethical,” Wilk opined.
McCurley, the congressman’s spokeswoman, said he has “taken great comfort in that he never has to worry about the money” with his wife controlling the account. “He was able to completely trust her,” she said.
Buck McKeon has a different ethical issue brewing. It recently became public that he allegedly received a discounted mortgage from the former Countrywide Financial. The congressman “appears to have obtained a significant discount on his VIP loan as a direct result of personal intervention by [then-] Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the House oversight panel, wrote in a letter released this month. The case was referred to the House Ethics Committee to investigate whether the loan amounted to an improper gift.
This article appears in the January 26, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.