Why trouble with the law marks the end for some politicians, but not others


Texas Governor Rick Perry (R). (Photo by Stewart F. House/Getty Images)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has been going on August ice cream runs, speaking with reporters and getting ready to schmooze with conservative activists in New Hampshire this weekend.

Oh, and he also got booked on two felony counts.

Five days after a grand jury indicted him, Perry is going about business as usual -- and his stock in the Republican Party has seemingly risen. Early signs suggest that Perry's political career won't be sunk by simultaneous campaign and courtroom tracks as he weighs another presidential bid -- that, in fact, the dual process might actually give his primary season prospects a boost. Unless, of course, he was actually convicted.

So why are some politicians who run into legal trouble sent packing, while others survive? To answer this question, let's take a look at the recent history of politicians' run-ins with the law, in alphabetical order:

Rod Blagojevich

The lesson: When you are removed from office and barred from running again, then -- yeah, that's pretty much it for you.

The Illinois Democratic governor was dislodged from office in 2009 after a unanimous vote in the state Senate. Blagojevich had been arrested on corruption charges, including plans to sell a Senate seat to the highest bidder. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2011. His political career is over.

Larry Craig

The lesson: Losing the faith of your party usually spells the end.

The then-Idaho Republican senator was arrested for suspected lewd conduct in a men's restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in 2007. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. Meanwhile, his GOP colleagues asked him to step down from his committee leadership positions. He ended up not running for a third term in 2008. If he'd run again, odds were heavily against a win.

John Edwards

The lesson: An acquittal in a court of law doesn't guarantee the same verdict in the court of public opinion.

The former North Carolina senator and 2008 presidential candidate was indicted in 2011 on allegations he deployed illegal contributions to hide his mistress from the public. He was acquitted on one count and a mistrial freed him from five others. But the damage was done -- and then some. Edwards had a child with his mistress while his wife was battling breast cancer. She died of the disease in 2010. It's safe to say his political career is safely in the rearview mirror.

Rick Perry

The lesson: If you get the the support of party leaders, that helps. A lot. And if you really have nothing to hide, it helps to, well, not hide.

Part of his early success responding to the charges is the perception among many Republicans -- and even some Democrats -- that his indictment (you can read about it more detail here) is flimsy and perhaps politically motivated. That's made things a lot easier for the governor. When you have Chris Christie and Jeb Bush backing you publicly, it much more manageable to keep up a public schedule.

Perry's doing the opposite of hiding right now -- a posture that projects confidence to the public about his insistence that he's innocent. He's hopscotching the country starting with a trip to Washington on Thursday. He did a Sunday news show interview. Did we mention he went straight from a county courthouse to an ice cream stand? That's one cool customer.

David Rivera

The lesson: You can't win if you don't play. Then again, if you're in trouble, you probably shouldn't play.

The former Florida Republican congressman who is under a federal investigation for possible ties to a campaign finance scheme tried running for his old seat this year. Briefly. Two months after launching, he ended his campaign, chalking the decision up to uncertainty about Florida's congressional map. He was officially identified as the target of a federal investigation this week. Coincidence? That'll be up to voters. Rivera said he will instead run for the state House in 2016. Unless he's cleared, that'll be a tough climb. 

Ted Stevens

The lesson: Sometimes, your worst enemy in politics is time itself.

Stevens, a longtime Alaska Republican senator, lost a close race to then-Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich (D) in 2008 after being convicted of seven felony counts of failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts. He had to stand trial during his campaign. It didn't help him that 2008 was a banner election for Democrats.

The guilty verdict in his case was tossed out by a federal judge in 2009. And a judicial investigation released in 2012 found the prosecution had concealed important evidence in the case. But that news came long after his career had ended.

Stevens passed away in a 2010 plane crash.

David Vitter

The lesson: Time can be your best friend in politics. And being suspected of wrongdoing and being charged with it are two very different things.

Vitter is a leading candidate for governor of Louisiana in 2015. Seven years ago, the Republican senator's number showed up in the phone records of the "D.C. Madam," linking him to a high-profile prostitution scandal.

But Vitter was never charged with anything. He apologized. And, perhaps most important, he didn't have to go before voters again until 2010. Three years is an eternity in politics. When he runs for governor next year, he will be seven years removed from scandal.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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