When John G. Hutchinson won a seat in Congress in a special election last month, he knew the job would involve controversial decisions that might anger some constituents. What he didn't know was that the first touchy decision would be hiring a secretary -- and the angry constituent would be his wife.
But now Hutchinson, a 45-year-old Charleston, W.Va., Democrat who was elected to fill the seat formerly held by the late Rep. John M. Slack, is embroiled in an embarrassing public squabble that features the new congressman, his wife, and his most senior aide arguing about the appropriate age and physical attributes of the women on his office staff.
The Hutchinson affair, which has been probed with considerable gusto by the Charleston newspapers, revolves around his efforts to hire a Washington staff just after he was sworn in as a House member on June 10.
Hutchinson had been mayor of Charleston for nine years before winning the House seat, and he tapped his top city hall aide, Lawrence Conques, to be his administrative assistant in Congress.
Conques came to Washington to set up shop in the longworth House Office Building. The first thing he did was order a new paint job, new carpeting and new furniture. Then he set out to hire a secretary/receptionist and a caseworker.
Conques says he settled on two applicants, both single women in their mid-20s, who had good resumes and experience on Capitol Hill. He says he recommended these two to the congressman, and Hutchinson agreed they should be hired.
But then, as Conques relates the tale, Julia (Berry) Hutchinson got into the act, complaining that it would be "dangerous" to staff the office with attractive, single women.
"Berry laid down the gauntlet," Conques said. "Either these girls had to go, or it was a divorce."
Hutchinson, interviewed by telephone from his Charleston home, has a slightly different version what happened. He says that he and his wife jointly agreed that young, single women should be taboo.
He said his concern stems back to the scandal surrounding former representative Wayne Hays (D-Ohio), who had a much-publicized romance with an office aide named Elizabeth Ray.
"We think the publicity and the carrying-on of some members of Congress have been inexcusable," Hutchinson said. "My wife and I decided, before we ever got to Washington, that we would not hire any baby dolls."
Mrs. Hutchinson declined to discuss the matter.
The congressman acknowledges that he initially approved his administrative assistant's decision to hire the two young women. But he says he did so only because he was told there were no other applicants. In any case, Hutchinson soon changed his mind and told Conques the women could not be hired.
To help his aide in future hiring decisions, Hutchinsson wrote Conques a memo setting forth the guidelines he and his wife had agreed upon.
The memo, which the miffed aide leaked to the Charleston papers, reads as follows: "Larry: 35-40 or older, preferably married, if they could stop a clock qualify for grade A."
These guidelines led to further arguments, which led to a "compromise" in which Hutchinson hired one of the two women Conques had recomended. But Conques was unsatisfied, and resigned.
In the latest development, Conques has issued a 10-page chronology of his role in the affair and Hutchinson responded with a blast at his former aide and at the press.
The new congressman, meanwhile, is gearing up for a tough contest in November, when he will face the same opponent he narrowly defeated last month. Republicans say the Hutchinson affair should give them a strong chance to take away the seat, which has been a Democratic preserve for decades.