tampabay.com

On common ground of divorce

Most of the candidates for governor of Florida have failed marriages in their past that generate questions on the campaign trail.

By ADAM C. SMITH and JONI JAMES
Published June 20, 2006


If you want Florida’s next governor to have no messy divorce or short-lived marriage in his past, your pickings are slim.

Of the four major candidates for governor, only Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Davis of Tampa has never been divorced.

And while failed marriages are hardly unusual in this era of baby boomer politicians, most of Florida’s gubernatorial candidates face sticky personal questions about their prior marriages:

- Republican Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher, 62, campaigning as the most socially conservative, family-values candidate, this week acknowledged committing adultery in his first marriage after court documents from his divorce 27 years ago were revealed.

- Democratic state Sen. Rod Smith, 56, in every campaign he’s run, has had to explain why courts in the late 1980s ordered him to pay nearly $18,000 in unpaid child support and found him in contempt for being $92 short on one child support check.

- Republican Attorney General Charlie Crist, 49, was forced to deny he’s gay, after a woman at a public forum pointedly asked him about his six-month marriage in 1979.

“Even by post-(Monica) Lewinsky standards, the Florida primary seems especially focused on candidates’ private lives,’’ noted the Hotline political newsletter Tuesday as stories about Gallagher’s divorce records appeared on front pages across the state.

In an era when the Republican Party has dominated Florida politics in part by selling its version of family values, how much might these messy marriages matter at the ballot box?

“Voters these days are looking for leaders that share their values, and for many of them that means family values,’’ said Debra DeShong Reed, a Democratic consultant in Panama City.

She suspects that Davis, approaching his 20th anniversary, stands to benefit when his family history is compared to others.

Gallagher supporters lamented Tuesday that the revelations about their candidate — disclosed after anonymous sources passed unavailable court records to at least one newspaper — provide fodder for third-party attack ads, usually unveiled in the final days of a race.

“Now that they’ve gotten the papers to write it, you can almost see the headlines” from the third-party political committees, said Tallahassee lobbyist Peter Dunbar, a longtime Gallagher adviser.

Thus far, the personal lives of neither Crist nor Smith have generated the level of scrutiny that Gallagher’s has.

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Crist, then a student at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala., married Amanda Morrow in Delray Beach in the summer of 1979. They separated five months later. On Jan. 2, 1980, Crist filed for divorce in Pinellas County.

“We dated at Florida State for a couple of years, got married. I was pretty young. It just didn’t work out,’’ said Crist, who has never talked much about the marriage and had little to say about it Tuesday.

“I don’t like to argue and we did some of that. But that’s really all I have to say,’’ said Crist, who has not kept in touch with his former wife. She could not be reached for comment.

The 10-page Crist divorce file contains none of unpleasant charges and counter-charges sometimes found in divorce cases. But the brevity of his marriage, and the fact that Crist has never had kids, has prompted whispers about his sexuality and questions about his ability to relate to most voters.

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Since his first campaign for state attorney in 1992, Rod Smith has had to fend off “deadbeat dad’’ attacks stemming from a court fight over child support.

“If I had to do it over again, would I do some things differently? Of course,’’ Smith said in a recent interview. “Is there a certain bitterness that’s attendant to any divorce on both sides? Yes. Is my ex-wife a great mother? Yes. Do I have a great son? Absolutely. Did I ever not support my child? Not for a moment.’’

Rodney and Susan Smith married in Tulsa, Okla. in 1971, after he had graduated from the University of Tulsa and was waiting to see if he would be drafted or could start law school. He filed for divorce in 1981, when their son Jesse was about 5 months old. Both remarried within months.

The legal dispute began in 1988. His ex-wife and son had moved out of state, and they had a verbal agreement to cut his $600 monthly child support to $300. He said it was to help defray the expenses of travel to visit Jesse or bring his son to Gainesville.

When she sought to reinstate the $600 payment, he fought it in court and lost. In a separate action, a magistrate found him in contempt when he withheld $92 from his monthly payment to cover the cost of clothes he had bought his son.

“I said (to the magistrate) you’ll have to order me. He ordered it, and I paid it,’’ Smith said.His ex-wife could not be reached for comment, but in 1992 and 2000 she released statements decrying opponents accusing Smith of being a deadbeat dad.

Jesse Smith, a recent law school graduate volunteering on Smith’s campaign, also disputed any suggestion that his father shirked responsibilities.

“The idea that he ever stopped supporting me, that’s simply not true,’’ Jesse Smith said Tuesday. “He always helped support me. … It was really a dispute over travel expenses and wound up in court.’’

Davis’ communications director, Josh Earnest, discounted Davis’ making an issue out of Smith’s child support. But , he said, “the real question is how would Republicans use this information against Sen. Smith if he were the Democratic nominee. If history is any guide, it’s not hard to imagine the Republicans using this as a brutal but effective political weapon.’’

***

Gallagher’s campaign on Monday tried to make the best of a bad situation, having two prominent social conservative leaders issue statements in support. Gallagher has presented himself as a changed man since he remarried in 1998 and fathered a son, his only child.

Gallagher’s estranged first wife in 1979 alleged that her 35-year-old husband had broken into the marital home, stolen the dog and nearly hurt his mother-in-law. The allegations were made in a partial transcript of a hearing where the wife sought unsuccessfully to obtain a restraining order from Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Rubin.  

The records were apparently part of a court record destroyed this year by the Miami-Dade court officials under state records-keeping law. All that remains of the case in the public domain are microfilm copies of Rubin’s orders and a handwritten outline of the case’s events, which ended without a trial.

Both Crist and a top adviser to his campaign denied circulating the records.

Crist supporter Mac Stipanovich, a Tallahassee lobbyist, said he had received the documents anonymously several months ago but never planned to use them in the campaign.

“I saw them as kind of dangerous,” Stipanovich said Tuesday. “It’s factual but it’s just so salacious. We had many other weaknesses on the substance of issues we could attack him on.’’

At least two voters don’t care about Gallagher’s newest revelations: the woman with whom he admits having had the affair, and her husband of more than two decades.

Bill Corry, a Tallahassee attorney who married the former Stephanie McBee, called the 27-year-old affair “ancient history.” His wife recently wrote a $500 check for Gallagher’s campaign and records show Corry gave one himself last year.

“We’ve had four children and the oldest is 23,’’ Corry said Tuesday. “They all know about Tom Gallagher. It’s just kind of silly for it to come up. We think he’s a fine man.’’

Staff writers David Adams and Alex Leary and researchers Caryn Baird, Carolyn Edds and Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.