Is There Life After Political Death?

Jun 17, 2011
Originally published on June 17, 2011 7:23 pm

Former Congressman Anthony Weiner may be gone, but his three-quarters apologetic and one-quarter "I'll be back" resignation speech hinted that he believes a future in elective politics may not be out of the question.

History clearly suggests otherwise.

While plenty of politicians who have misbehaved — even criminally — weathered their scandals and remain in office, the comeback prospects for those who resign or abandon re-election dreams are decidedly dim.

"The fact that I can't name one off the top of my head suggests that once you have a problem like this, it's almost impossible to come back as a politician," says Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who served in the Clinton White House.

The only modern example of this type of extreme comeback is former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry.

While mayor, Barry was arrested in a 1990 FBI and police sting operation, during which he was caught on videotape smoking crack cocaine. He claimed to have been set up but decided not to run for re-election, served a six-month prison sentence, and ran successfully for mayor two years later. (The Barry situation is also considered unique because the city's long-troubled racial politics played a large role in his post-prison electoral success.)

If you rule out Barry, now a D.C. city councilman, examples are few.'s Josh Chafetz reached back to the 1800s to find a case of someone who resigned when facing expulsion but later ran again successfully. That would be Rep. Preston Brooks, the South Carolinian who brutally caned a fellow House member in the chamber.

Others have seen redemption-after-disgrace in arenas outside politics, but that often involves the availability of an enormous pot of money to remake an image. (See: junk bond king Michael Milken, who after spending two years in federal prison for securities fraud has become a noted philanthropist.)

Weiner, too, could find a new line of work. (Though perhaps not the job offered to him by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, complete with a 20 percent raise.)

But if Weiner's scandal-plagued former colleagues are any guide, his prospects aren't exactly bright. A look at what five onetime pols are doing now:

Rep. Chris Lee (R-NY): The congressman from New York's 26th District sent flirtatious emails to a woman he encountered on Craigslist. One message included a bare-chested photograph of Lee that went viral almost immediately. He had described himself to the woman as a divorced lobbyist. The 47-year-old Lee is married, and the couple has a young son.

Where is he now? In February, on the same day a report of his electronic overtures surfaced, he abruptly resigned. He was in his second term. Fortunately for Lee, he doesn't have need for a 9-to-5 job. His family is wealthy and owns businesses and a foundation that Lee has long helped to run.

Sen. John Ensign (R-NV): He was a rising star in the Republican Party, an evangelical Christian who strongly advocated conservative family values, and considered a potential presidential candidate. Then, in 2009, he admitted he'd had an extramarital affair with the wife of his top aide and best friend. The scandal dragged on for nearly two years until Ensign resigned in May, but not before triggering a Senate ethics investigation.

Where is he now? Waiting to find out if he will be criminally charged in connection with the scandal. The Senate ethics panel concluded that the 53-year-old Ensign tried to cover up the scandal by orchestrating a $96,000 payment to his mistress, misusing his authority and violating campaign finance laws, among other claims. The panel has referred its findings to the Justice Department and the Federal Election Commission.

Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID): The veteran lawmaker, who had a record of opposing gay-rights legislation, was arrested in 2007 for allegedly sexually propositioning a male undercover police officer in the bathroom stall at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The charge of lewd conduct was dropped, and he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, though he denied any inappropriate behavior.

Where is he now? After announcing his resignation, and then reversing himself — and losing a legal effort to have his guilty plea tossed out — Craig, now 65, served out his term and left office in 2009. He opened an energy consulting firm with his former chief of staff.

Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL): The congressman from Palm Beach, an outspoken advocate of harsher penalties against child pornography, allegedly made sexual overtures in text messages sent to teenage boys working as congressional pages. Foley was the deputy whip when he resigned in 2006 under pressure from fellow Republicans and amid intense media scrutiny. The scandal was credited with weakening the Republican brand and helping the Democrats take back control of the House in that year's elections.

Where is he now? After leaving office, Foley disclosed that he is gay. He now sells real estate, owns a consignment shop in West Palm Beach, and hosts a weekly radio talk show on politics.

Rep. Gary Condit (D-CA): Condit first made a name for himself as one of the Democrats in Congress most critical of President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Three years later, in 2001, the disappearance of Washington intern Chandra Levy led to the revelation that the 23-year-old woman had had an affair with the 53-year-old congressman. (Levy was from Condit's congressional district.) Police never formally identified Condit as a suspect in Levy's disappearance, and speculation by her family that he at least had information that could aid the investigation effectively ruined his reputation.

In 2002, he lost his re-election bid to one of his former aides. Two months later, Levy's remains were found and her death was declared a homicide. In 2010, a legal immigrant from El Salvador was convicted of Levy's murder.

Where is he now? Living in Arizona, where he opened two Baskin-Robbins shops in the mid-2000s that eventually failed.

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