Only nine months into his first term in Congress, brash California Rep. Ernie Konnyu finds himself at the center of a political hailstorm, confronting accusations of sexual harassment and making powerful enemies both here and in his district.
In one instance, the San Jose Republican acknowledged that he had asked a female aide to move a name tag she was wearing because it was drawing attention to her breasts. He then compounded his troubles by explaining to the San Jose Mercury News: “She is not exactly heavily stacked, OK?”
As a result of that and other reports, Konnyu faces a growing list of possible challengers eager to represent an affluent and heavily Republican district that includes Stanford University and Silicon Valley.
Former Rep. Ed Zschau, Konnyu’s predecessor who vacated the seat for an unsuccessful Senate bid, has been recruiting potential opponents. “People feel that there may be a better representative than he is,” Zschau said. “The assessment (is) we can do better.”
Paul N. (Pete) McCloskey, the liberal Republican who held the seat before Zschau, has threatened to run again himself if no other strong candidate will. McCloskey is blunter when asked about Konnyu: “He’s an embarrassment.”
Konnyu’s most immediate problem stems from the three reports of sexual harassment--incidents that he claims have been misconstrued.
He insisted in an interview that he merely told the aide, who was later fired, to move the name tag “higher toward her shoulder” because it “looked inappropriate where it was parked.”
“The last time I saw any definition of sexual harassment, that wasn’t it,” he added. The aide, who noted that she is looking for a new job, declined to be interviewed.
In another incident--one that Konnyu described as “the strangest one of all"--it was reported that Konnyu, who is married, touched the knee of E. F. Hutton lobbyist Polly Minor during a lunch at a restaurant near his office.
Konnyu denied touching her knee and dismisses the account as only a rumor. But he acknowledged that Minor “made a sort of semi-scene” in the restaurant. He declined to describe what touched off Minor’s outburst, saying only that it involved a conversation that he prefers to keep private. Minor and E. F. Hutton declined to comment.
Finally, former staffer Michele Morse has said that Konnyu complained during their first private meeting that she should wear high heels and frilly blouses, rather than the flat shoes and tailored shirt she prefers.
Konnyu then asked her to stand up and turn around so he could “see what you look like,” Morse told the Mercury News. She added that she was fired last February after refusing to spend time with the congressman after hours.
‘Dressed Like a College Gal’
From Konnyu’s perspective, he was simply pointing out that Morse was “dressed like a college gal in a congressional office where we receive ambassadors, mayors, generals” and other dignitaries. He added that he also has asked male employees “to do practically the same thing. . . . I asked my (administrative assistant) to buy a few suits.”
Morse, who now lives in Costa Mesa, refused to elaborate on the incident but she did not deny reports published by newspapers in Konnyu’s district.
“The Washington scene is much more critical about picayune stuff,” Konnyu said in his defense. “It is a totally different atmosphere from Sacramento. . . . Here, if you sneeze, some reporter who’s got it in for you is going to write a story about it.”
Konnyu, a 50-year-old Hungarian immigrant, has little regard for the time-honored congressional maxim that a junior member should go along to get along. “I intend to lead instead of being led,” he wrote in a recent letter to constituents. “If that costs me, and it almost always does, then so be it.”
Perhaps his biggest misstep with his fellow congressmen thus far was a head-on public clash last June with Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass), the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.
During House debate on Interior appropriations legislation last June, the Massachusetts Republican sided with the Democratic majority in fighting Republican-sponsored cuts to the spending bill. Konnyu dashed into the chamber and accused Conte of forgetting where his loyalties should lie.
The incident is likely to haunt Konnyu, because he has alienated the Republican who is in the best position to decide whether his junior colleagues get federal financing for the roads, parks and other projects that their districts want.
“I have lost Silvio Conte, but let me tell you the conservatives know they have a friend in Ernie Konnyu,” said Konnyu. “It’s time for the bold to step out and give leadership.”
As the battle lines for next spring’s GOP primary are being drawn, Konnyu’s conservative colleagues are closing ranks behind him lest he be replaced by someone in the mold of the more liberal McCloskey.
California Rep. Jerry Lewis of Highland, a member of the House Republican leadership who plans to help Konnyu raise campaign money this fall, said: “I would be very surprised if he were very vulnerable.”
However, a poll of 400 district voters taken in the last two weeks for a potential Konnyu challenger by the San Francisco political consulting firm of Joe Shumate & Associates suggests otherwise. Among all voters polled, 34.3% said that they want a new congressman, while only 27.8% expressed support for reelecting Konnyu.
Konnyu won support from 40% of the Republicans polled, contrasted with 26.7% who said it is time for a change. Shumate said the 40% rate is the threshold upon which a candidate in a securely Republican district is considered vulnerable.
And once the Republican respondents were told the nature of the sexual harassment allegations, the disapproval rate shot to 41.9%, with support falling to 24.4%.
The poll was commissioned by Thomas J. Campbell, a Stanford law professor who is thinking seriously of running against Konnyu and could be his strongest Republican challenger. Also considering a run in the Republican primary is John C. Duncan, an aide to Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.
On the Democratic side, political analysts say that San Mateo County Supervisor Anna E. Eshoo could be a strong contender if she decides to run. Already in the race are Robin Yeamans, a Saratoga lawyer and president of the local National Organization for Women chapter, and Talton Branch Jr., a Felton businessman.
For his part, Konnyu dismissed the possible challenges. “I don’t think (the controversy) has endangered my seat at all,” he said.
But he also acknowledged that a change in his style may be due and said that he plans “to make my behavior a whole lot more conservative. . . . You find out what the rules are and begin to adjust to them.”