The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Everyone who’s won this seat in Congress has gotten divorced afterward

Two new candidates are vying for the “divorce curse” seat in Oregon’s 5th District. They’re both happily married . . . for now.

(Paul Blow for The Washington Post)

One marriage ended after the congressman took up with his chief of staff. Another broke up when the House member could not persuade his wife to stay. Then there was the spouse who cheered on his wife’s campaign, only to walk out after she won the election.

The stories differ, but they have something in common: They all involve the congressional representative from Oregon’s 5th District. All five lawmakers who have held the seat over the past 40 years have gotten divorced while in office.

And so, aside from the usual drama of which candidate (and party) will win in November, there is another question looming over the neck-and-neck House race between Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner and Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer.

Will the winner’s marriage survive?

“We’re looking forward to breaking the curse,” said McLeod-Skinner, 55, who has been married to her wife, Cass, for five years.

“Family is first,” said Chavez-DeRemer, 54, who married her husband, Shawn, 31 years ago.

Across the country, failed marriages seem as common as political discord, and Congress has been no exception over the years. In the 1970s, a spate of divorces among senators prompted talk of an “epidemic.” There are more recent examples, of course. Perhaps the only thing that Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) have in common is that they both found themselves headed for divorce court not long after coming to Washington. (Greene’s husband filed for divorce last month; Omar and her former husband split in 2019, and she married a political consultant months later.)

The demands of the job can tax a marriage.

“It’s particularly hard in the House and the Senate when you’re running back and forth between your home district and Washington,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), one of the more famous congressional divorcés, whose first marriage ended a couple of years after his election to Congress in 1978. “You get absorbed by your constituents and the legislative process, and it’s hard to balance things.”

Think divorce is miserable? Try getting one while serving in Congress.

Yet the unbroken streak of broken marriages among reps of Oregon’s 5th District — a bipartisan phenomenon — is striking enough that when the current congressman, Democrat Kurt Schrader, and his then-wife, Martha, broke up in 2011, a local headline declared that the couple was extending the district’s “divorce curse.”

Schrader, a veterinarian who lost his primary to McLeod-Skinner, pooh-poohed the notion that the seat he is about to vacate is cursed. “I’m a science-based, medical dude,” he said, suggesting he had little interest in superstitious explanations.

Still, the congressman said, “history is what it is,” and the candidates vying to succeed him “ought to think twice and make sure they’re ready for it.”

Well? Are they?

McLeod-Skinner’s wife, Cass, who has been married twice previously and runs a state regulatory board, said she and the candidate are both committed to public service and understand the stress that congressional life can put on a marriage. “I can see that it’s problematic,” she said in a phone interview. “But between Jamie and I, we have that shared value and shared life experience.”

McLeod-Skinner, who is an attorney and natural-resources consultant, said she finds it easier to talk policy than about her relationship — but not because of a lack of connubial bliss. She described her marriage as “foundational to who I am and how I function,” saying: “My connection to Cass is like recharging my batteries.”

On the phone from her home in Happy Valley, Ore., her Republican opponent dismissed talk of a curse as “silliness.”

Chavez-DeRemer and her husband met when they were 14. “One day he gave me a kiss, and I said, ‘Oh, I’m going to marry that guy,’ ” she said.

“We’re wise enough to realize we want to be together,” said Shawn, 54, an anesthesiologist, who in February posted a video on Facebook melding a Valentine’s Day salute to “the love of my life” with a fundraising appeal for her campaign. (“Remember, no donation is too small.”)

Longevity, however, is no guarantee of protection from the proverbial “curse.” Schrader and his wife clocked in at more than 30 years of marriage before they “grew apart” and split up, said the congressman, who has since remarried.

The representative who started the 5th District streak, Denny Smith, said he had been married for 19 years when his wife, Kathleen Barrett Smith, told him she wanted out. “I tried to talk her out of it,” said the former congressman, who became the district’s first representative after the seat was created in 1982. “I think she felt like she was not number one anymore, that I put all my efforts into Congress. You had to do that to keep the damn seat.” (Through her daughter, Kathleen declined to comment.)

Smith, 84, who remarried before he left Congress in 1991 and is now a widower, said the job’s geographic logistics were never easy on him or his relationships. “I made 30 trips across the country. You’re on the road all the time,” he said. “It’s a tough job.”

His successor, Mike Kopetski, then a rising star in the Democratic Party, was on his second marriage when he entered Congress in 1991. He and his wife split up before he decided not to seek a third term. “I don’t talk about it,” the former congressman said by phone from Montana, referring both to the marriage and talk of a curse.

The Republican who succeeded Kopetski, Jim Bunn, revealed less than a year into his term that he and his wife of 17 years were divorcing. Bunn, who could not be reached for comment, then married his chief of staff, a development that was viewed at the time as a factor when he lost his 1996 reelection campaign to Democrat Darlene Hooley.

Hooley’s husband, John, had been supportive when she challenged Bunn, she said. “He was so excited about me winning and about me going to D.C.,” she said. But less than a year later, she said, he called her in Washington to say he wanted a divorce. He had met someone else, the former congresswoman said.

“I was very surprised,” she said.

Hooley, who ended up serving for 12 years and never remarried, said the job’s demands wore on her relationship with her husband. But she has “no regrets” about her tenure, which required near-constant travel back and forth across the country. “I’d fly home from D.C., and I’d say, ‘Hi, how are you kids?’ and ‘Hi, honey, I’ll see you a bit later,’ ” she said. “I didn’t spend enough time talking to my family, because I was spending so much time talking to people in my district.”

“I think part of it was that he thought he would be much more involved with everything,” she said of her ex-husband, who died in 2019. “And it turned out he was not.”

Washington political life is well known for the toll it can take on its leaders, and the hazards to marital harmony in both legislative chambers have been well-chronicled over the years. In 1977, The Washington Post diagnosed a “Capitol Hill ‘Divorce Epidemic’ ” after a spate of split-ups among senators. “Many a political wife practically names ‘politics’ as co-respondent,” the paper reported, “charging that constant weekends away from home wooing constituents, plus the ego-feeding fawning attention they receive from staffs, takes its toll on the marriage.”

In Oregon, lawmakers representing the 5th District aren’t any more “cursed” by the rigors of congressional service than other members of the state’s House delegation. Yet, since the mid-1970s, only two of the 12 who have served in Oregon’s four other congressional districts have gotten divorced while in the House. That’s a roughly 17 percent combined divorce rate in the 1st through 4th districts, vs. a 100 percent rate in the 5th.

What, then, is the deal in this swath of central and coastal Oregon? Is there something in the air? The water?

The question has flummoxed Oregon political observers over the years, including Randy Stapilus, a local columnist who once blogged about what he described as the “disquieting trend,” under the headline: “OR 5: Hazardous for Marriage?”

Perhaps it’s the commute between lawmakers’ homes and Portland’s airport, which can add another hour or two to a nearly six-hour flight from Washington, Stapilus said. Or maybe it’s because redistricting has altered the district’s boundaries over the years, causing additional pressure on incumbents to bond with new constituents.

“What goes on in a marriage — who really knows?” Stapilus added. “As much as in politics you tend to discount coincidence, I think this is probably the case where it’s pretty applicable.”

Jim Moore, a Pacific University political science professor, thinks the demands on House members’ families grew in the 1990s, when Republicans began portraying Washington “as the enemy” and lawmakers “stopped hanging out in D.C.”

“They became commuters,” he said. “It’s really stressful on the other spouse.”

The seat’s divorce history is sufficient enough that Moore said he suggested that panelists at a recent congressional debate ask the candidates, “How’s your marriage?” Not because it especially matters, he said, but because accounting for a confounding pattern such as the divorce streak might be revealing. “I wanted to see them have to think and be a real person,” he said.

The question never came up, though the subject generated a bit of Twitter chatter in Oregon earlier this year, to which Cass McLeod-Skinner wrote: “That’s one more trend that ends with Schrader.”

With control of the House at stake, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders in Washington have poured millions of dollars into several races in Oregon, including the contest in the 5th District. The Cook Political Report has rated the race a “toss up,” meaning the question of who will occupy the supposedly cursed seat is still up in the air.

No matter the outcome, neither candidate seems to doubt that the state of their union hangs in the balance.

“A married couple like us is new to the equation,” Jamie McLeod-Skinner said. She imagined what 5th District constituents could say if she wins: “It took two lesbians to break the curse.”

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