After months of rumors, allegations of adultery against front-running candidate C. David Baker surfaced this week in the race for the Republican nomination in the 40th Congressional District.
At a Newport Beach candidates' forum Thursday night, an unidentified man stood up as Baker was being introduced and shouted, "Mr. Baker, the issue is adultery." The man was ushered out of the room and fled before he could be questioned.
The public allegation added a dramatic note to an already spirited primary campaign in which 12 candidates are vying to succeed Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach).
Rumors about an alleged affair between Baker and a married woman with whom he worked to win approval for the $80-million Irvine Medical Center have circulated since the early days of his congressional campaign. The relationship reportedly ended in December, less than a month before Baker, a first-term Irvine councilman, opted to run for Congress.
Baker, married for 13 years and the father of two young boys, has made family values a cornerstone of his campaign, often touting his strong Christian beliefs and love of family at campaign appearances.
"I am a family man, and literally thousands of people will attest to that," Baker said Friday. "If character and integrity are the issue, I've shown character and integrity, time and time again."
Baker would not directly respond to the adultery charges Friday, saying only, "My wife, Patty, and I are more committed to each other than ever."
He acknowledged that the couple have been "through some tough times," but he would not comment on reports that the two separated last year. "Our relationship now is very, very strong," he said.
One of Baker's principal challengers, Newport Beach businessman Nathan Rosenberg, said if the adultery allegation is true, "it raises questions about (Baker's) credibility."
But he added that he does not intend to make an issue of it.
Said Baker's other chief rival in the race, C. Christopher Cox: "There are plenty of substantive issues that distinguish me from Dave Baker . . . and I'd like to focus some attention on that. I don't want to get sidetracked by issues like this."
Asked whether they had ever been involved in an extramarital affair, both Rosenberg, who is married, and Cox, who is single, said they had not.
Think It Will Have Impact
While the fallout from the accusation against Baker may not be known for several days, another candidate in the race for the Republican nomination in the 40th District, Peer Swan, said he believes the charges will have an impact.
"I haven't met anyone in this campaign so far that didn't know about it already," said Swan, an Irvine business executive. "I think that it was generally known that Dave had some problems with his marriage.
"From day one, I've always thought that this was going to have an impact on the race."
One candidate in the race conceded that he had commissioned polling on the subject of voter reaction to the issue of adultery because of the widespread rumors about Baker. The candidate agreed to discuss that polling on the condition that his name not be used.
In a survey in early April, the candidate said, 73% of the voters questioned said they would be less likely to vote for someone who was having an adulterous affair. But the survey also indicated that 65% of the voters questioned would be less likely to vote for a candidate who raised the issue against an opponent.
Discounted by Supporters
News of Baker's troubles was largely discounted by his key supporters, including state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) and Badham, who announced in January that he would not seek a seventh term. None of those who have endorsed Baker said they would withdraw their support.
"My endorsement was predicated on a strong belief in the person and his ability do the job--including strong character," said Bergeson, who reportedly discussed the rumors with Baker before endorsing him. "Whatever questions I raised were satisfied."
Badham said that before he endorsed Baker, "I sat down with Patty and Dave, and we ascertained that the rumors were not of sufficient substance to be concerned about."
He added: "They had had a tough time in their marriage for a while. They put it back together through faith."
Many in the crowd of nearly 350 at the candidates forum Thursday night at the Balboa Bay Club were caught by surprise when a man approached the stage and started shouting at Baker. The councilman was about to answer his first question from the moderator when the man launched his verbal attack, prompting some in the audience of largely Republican women to jeer and boo. Baker's wife and 3-year-old son were seated in the room a few rows away.
Baker remained silent during the outburst, staring in disbelief as the man was escorted from the room.
Several Baker campaign aides reportedly chased the man on foot out of the bay-side club and down Pacific Coast Highway to a restaurant but failed to catch him.
Lynn Turner, the organizer of the forum, said no one at the Balboa Bay Club was able to identify the man.
Baker, a graduate of UC Irvine and a 17-year resident of Irvine, said he had never seen the man.
After the outburst Thursday night, the forum continued, and there were no other references to it.
'First Rate Smear Job'
In an interview later, Baker called the accusation against him a "first-rate smear job."
His political consultant, Frank Caterinicchio, agreed: "Whisper campaigns have been a part of politics for many years. Unfortunately, Orange County has had more than its share of campaign dirty tricks."
State Sen. William Campbell (R-Hacienda Heights), a member of Baker's executive campaign committee, laughed when told of the charges and then said: "I think the accusation is outrageous. . . . Anybody who would try and destroy somebody's character in the midst of (a) campaign is despicable."
Assemblyman Nolan Frizzelle (R-Fountain Valley), one of the first local GOP leaders to endorse Baker, said he was glad that the "guy brought the issue up. I'm sure it was on the minds of people, and now he can put it behind him."
Another Baker supporter, former Costa Mesa Mayor Norma C. Hertzog, said the allegation is a personal matter "that will not affect his ability to act as our next congressman."
Rosenberg's campaign manager, Ted Long, predicted it would be a mistake for Baker not to address the truth or falsity of the allegation.
"By not responding, it may appear to the voter as an admission," he said. "At some point he has to come to terms with it so he can move on with his campaign."
At a forum at UC Irvine on Friday, there was no mention of the accusation. Baker made an opening statement but left before taking questions from student leaders, saying he was scheduled to appear at another event.
Huntington Beach Councilman Wes Bannister, another Baker supporter, said the accusation against Baker doesn't deserve discussion. He said that because of the notoriety of former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart's personal affairs, "people have a much lower opinion of their elected representatives than they did 20 years ago."
Times staff writer Jeffrey A. Perlman contributed to this article.