Widows of Bono, Capps Are on Well-Worn Path to Office

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The day after Beverly Byron’s congressman husband dropped dead at age 48 while training for the Marine Corps marathon, the governor of Maryland sat in the widow’s living room, urging her to take his seat.

“My two boys said, ‘She’ll run.’ I said, ‘I will?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ It was the best decision they ever made,” recalled Byron, a House member from 1978 to 1992, twice as long as her husband.

“In 24 hours, I became a widow, a single parent, unemployed and a candidate for Congress,” she said. “I knew I needed to work. It was the only job offered to me.”

Succeeding a politician who dies in office has long been a woman’s surest path to electoral success: Among first-time House candidates from 1916 to 1993, 84% of the widows won, while only 14% of other women were victorious. The trend was strongest when women were rarer in politics; 35 of the 95 women who served in Congress through 1976 were congressional wives first.

Now, with more than 1,500 female lawmakers nationwide and 100 women expected to run for Congress this fall, the so-called widow’s mandate seems in vogue again, as the current California political landscape vividly demonstrates.

Democrat Lois Capps, her husband Walter’s sidekick on the campaign trail and in Congress until his fatal heart attack Oct. 28, is favored to win a March 10 special election in the Central Coast district. Republican Mary Bono, a former waitress who said “no” when Larry King asked last week whether she was politically involved, is the only announced candidate to fill the House seat vacated this month when her husband, Sonny, died in a skiing accident.

If elected, they would join Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), who won husband Bill’s seat after he died of lung cancer in June 1996--the first instance of matrimonial succession since 1985.

Historically, party leaders anointed widows to honor the deceased member, tap voters’ sympathy and exploit name recognition to hold onto a seat while more conventional candidates prepared for the real campaign. For many of the women, taking their husbands’ seats helped them grieve--and made up for the sudden loss of income in a world where few worked outside the home.

But frequently, a funny thing happened on the way to Congress: Widows who passively accepted political posts during the daze of mourning often decided to stick around, sometimes bucking the will of those who had tapped them.

Several outlasted--and outshined--their husbands.

“Very often, the wife turns out to be a hell of a politician,” said Stephen Hess, a political dynasties expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “You talk about founding fathers, but there were founding mothers too. These political families were often a twosome.”

Political scientist Diane Blair examined the phenomenon in a 1978 paper titled “Over His Dead Body,” and later wrote a biography of the first woman elected to the Senate, Hattie Caraway (D-Ark.), who served from her appointment in 1931--after her husband’s death--until 1945.

“Behind a strong member of Congress is [often] a very supportive and insightful spouse,” Blair said in an interview. Assuming a dead husband’s place in office “was a natural extension” for such women.

Caraway carved the mold of a widow selected as a bench warmer who forged her own political career--despite the protests of her husband’s cronies.

“The time has passed when a woman should be placed in a position and kept there only while someone else is being groomed for the job,” Caraway said in announcing her surprise plan to run for election in 1932 against several Arkansans coveting the seat.

A homemaker whose only political experience was lunching with other Senate wives, Caraway was given a back-row seat and forced to use the public restroom. She took her knitting onto the Senate floor, observed upon first entering the chamber that the windows needed washing, and never made a speech. “I haven’t the heart to take a minute away from the men,” she said. “The poor dears love it so.”

But some historians say “Silent Hattie,” whose portrait was unveiled in the Capitol last year, was active behind the scenes and took care of her constituents.

“From our perspective, we would certainly wish that she had been more outspoken,” Blair said. “But it’s rather unfair of us to impose our expectations looking back at a woman who faced some really daunting obstacles.”

Counting Caraway, seven of history’s 26 female senators were congressional widows, including Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine), who filled her husband’s House seat when he died in 1940, moved to the upper chamber nine years later and stayed until 1972, when she finally lost an election. Smith was her husband Clyde’s secretary, drove his car on the campaign trail and called herself “a living symbol of nepotism.”

In the House, 35 of history’s 165 female members succeeded their dead husbands, including four Californians. No widower has taken his wife’s place, though Reuben Spellman of Maryland tried in 1980; he lost in the Democratic primary.

In an odd historical twist, two generations of widows actually occupied the same seat. Beverly Byron’s father-in-law, William, was elected to Congress in 1940, killed in a plane crash the next year and succeeded by his wife, Katharine.

The 1972 disappearance of a campaign plane containing House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-La.) and Rep. Nick Begich (D-Alaska) shows the disparate fate of widows--at least in modern times--based on their husband’s prominence and their own political activity.

Lindy Boggs, who had been her husband’s campaign manager and chaired presidential inaugural balls, was elected easily, stayed in the House nearly two decades and now is the first female U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. Peggy Begich, who spent her time at home raising six children, sought to replace her husband but was rebuffed by politicos and lost at a party convention.

Still, even when political widows fail to succeed their husbands, they can disrupt the best-laid plans of party professionals.

When veteran Rep. Harold “Mud” Runnels (D-N.M), who had been running unopposed, died less than three months before the 1980 election, his widow, Dorothy, made clear her interest in replacing him. Because the primary had come and gone, Democratic chieftains got to pick the party’s new nominee; they chose the governor’s nephew.

Infuriated, Dorothy Runnels launched a write-in campaign, as did Republican Joe Skeen. Runnels ran an extensive ad campaign teaching voters how to file legal write-in ballots; they figured it out--but sent Skeen to Congress instead with 38% of the vote.

“Just because they’re a widow, that doesn’t mean she’s necessarily going to be elected,” said Skeen, who remains in office.

Indeed, with the Capps and Bono candidacies, debate is raging over whether widowhood qualifies a woman for Congress today. Capps was an active congressional spouse, but her husband served less than a year. Bono admits to spending more time at soccer practice with her young children than watching Sunday morning news shows.

“Just because you’re Sonny Bono’s wife really doesn’t mean that you can do what Sonny Bono was doing,” said Kevin Ryder, host of the morning show on KROQ-FM (106.7) in Los Angeles. “I mean, Michael Jordan isn’t going to die and his wife’s [going to] go play for the Bulls.”

Mary Bono declined to be interviewed for this article.

“All widows are not created equal,” said Anita Perez Ferguson, president of the National Women’s Political Caucus. “Some widows make good candidates and good legislators. Others have not thought of themselves that way, haven’t prepared for it, and probably will not do a good job for their constituents.”

Irwin Gertzog, a political scientist at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania whose 1995 book “Congressional Women” examined widows’ succession, said that the practice was “all but disappearing” and that he considers the widow candidacies in California an aberration.

“Women [are] becoming members of the House through very different routes--by getting elected to lower office and working their way up,” Gertzog said. “Often, people come to the House and are given the benefit of the doubt that they’re worthy of it. Widows are not given the benefit of the doubt.”

Capps and Emerson said they decided to run mainly to continue their husbands’ legacy, but still have had to build independent identities.

Emerson replaced her husband’s desk with a large table and refused to sit behind it in his large swivel-chair, instead using a straight-backed one and placing it in front.

Both women said running helped them grieve.

“Had I kept my old job, I wouldn’t have gone to the office every day and talked about my late husband and worked through my feelings--the campaign allowed me to do that,” Emerson said. “Everywhere I went, people expressed their sorrow over Bill’s death and wanted to talk about him. It was the healthiest thing I could have done.”

But being a candidate is not the same as being a candidate’s wife.

“First of all, Walter had me,” Capps noted. “I don’t have him.”