In a word game that has become common in modern politics, Republican congressional candidate Jim Hendren of Sulphur Springs has come close to acknowledging an extramarital affair that ended in 2000 and led to the breakup of another marriage.
The front-runner for the 3rd District congressional seat recently vacated by his uncle, Hendren was asked point blank if “in the last couple of years” he had an affair with a Northwest Arkansas woman. He responded as follows:
“As I said when I announced, I’m not perfect,” Hendren said. “Have I made mistakes? Yeah, I have. As far as people wanting to delve into my marriage and talk about those kinds of things in a campaign, that speaks volumes about their character.
“Sure, it also says that I’m not perfect … My wife and four children are the most precious thing in the world to me. We have experienced ‘richer and poorer’ and ‘better and worse.’ “
The Northwest Arkansas Business Journal learned about Hendren’s extra marital relationship through routine reporting. The newspaper has chosen not to publish the woman’s name. She filed for divorce in July 2000; it was granted in January 2001.
The issue was widely believed to be the reason Hendren initially said he would not seek the seat.
Hendren’s campaign literature says the candidate wants to help “reverse the decline in moral values.” But during a recent interview, the term-limited former state representative said voters should focus on his public record instead of delving into his private life.
Hendren said he and his wife of 16 years, Tammy, have put the “mistake” behind them, and he’s ready to work for the people of the 3rd District. He is the nephew of both former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson of Fort Smith and U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark.
Asa Hutchinson recently was appointed by the Bush Administration to head the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Gov. Mike Huckabee set Nov. 20 for a special election to fill the vacated House seat.
Hendren and three other candidates have already filed to compete in the Sept. 25 primary. The others include Rogers optometrist John Boozman, state Sen. Gunner DeLay of Fort Smith and international business consultant and former Chief Judge for the U.S. Department of the Interior Brad Cates of West Fork.
The DeLay campaign already had a prepared statement ready in case the affair was made public. The statement, which read as follows, was faxed immediately following a reporter’s inquiry to DeLay’s campaign headquarters.
“This is the one and only statement that Gunner DeLay or his campaign will issue on this matter: ‘This is a matter between Jim and his family. What effect it has on the voters will be determined on Sept. 25,’ Delay said. ‘I hope we stay on the issues that are relevant to this race such as Jim’s votes against concealed weapons.'”
Hendren accused his opponents of leaking information related to the affair, but did not name a specific campaign. He called the story “politics at its worst.”
“First off, let me say that people want to know why it’s difficult to get into politics, and why it’s a tough decision to jump into a race like this,” Hendren said. “This is why. Because you realize that some people go to any lengths to win a race.
“If they can’t win on experience, qualifications or issues, then they’ll take another approach.”
Boozman said he didn’t want to make character an issue, either. Cates had no comment at all.
“The voters will decide if character and family values are defining issues in this campaign,” Boozman said. “We are focused on telling the voters about John Boozman. It is important that they know I stand for life, lower taxes, less government and the right to bear arms.
“In Washington, I will be dedicated, as I have been in Northwest Arkansas, to serving people, building consensus and maintaining conservative values.”
Hendren had a war chest of $333,903 as of July 31, including a personal loan of $300,000. Boozman was the next closest Republican having raised $57,090 for his campaign.
In early August, Hendren hired the Tarrance Group of Alexandria, Va., to poll 300 likely Republican primary voters in the 3rd District. Given a 6 percent margin of error, Hendren had 38 percent of the support followed by Boozman with 25 percent.
But 27 percent of those surveyed said they remained undecided.
Hendren said his indiscretion is not relevant to the campaign. “This is the part of politics that really gives people a sour taste in their mouths,” he said.
Sen. Hutchinson, 51, recently dealt with a similar situation. He filed for divorce in June 1999 from his wife of 28 years, Donna, amid reports of a relationship with a former staff member, Randi Fredholm. Sen. Hutchinson married Fredholm, 38, in August 2000 and has said he’ll continue to make “family values” part of his platform.
“Gosh we better not have to be saints or be perfect in order to talk about what’s good for our country and what’s good for our society,” Sen. Hutchinson recently told Arkansas Times magazine. “Solid families and good marriages are good for our society and I still believe that. I believe in the importance of marriage and a good home, and because I failed doesn’t mean I cede my right to talk about those things.
“We would have a very poor public discourse if you had to live up perfectly in all those areas.”
State Rep. Marvin Parks, R-Greenbrier, is an adviser to the Hendren campaign. He said adversaries who may have stirred rumors about Hendren’s affair have revealed flaws in their own character. He said Hendren will continue to run a “clean” campaign and that the candidate will prevail because of his experience and abilities.
“Jim’s willingness to face these issues openly with both he and [his wife’s] families has demonstrated real maturity,” Parks said. “A lot of maturity comes from dealing with difficult situations in life, and I’ve watched him work through this situation, and he’s shown a lot of character. It’s a matter that’s between the Hendrens and their God, and Jim has grown from this.”
Parks cited Hendren’s service from 1984-92 in the U.S. Air Force as evidence of the candidate’s character. The former F-15 fighter pilot, who flew in six intercepts of Soviet planes over the Bering Sea, was honorably discharged as a captain.
“I have a public record that people can look at,” Hendren said. “I served my country for eight years, and I think I did it honorably. I buried some of my friends in the service, and for people to try to come back and impugn my honor, I just think it’s politics at its worst.”
See capsules of each G.O.P. candidate in the 3rd District’s House race on Page 14. Next issue — the Democrats.