WASHINGTON and LOS ANGELES — It’s not a TV political drama but it could be. Call it “The McKeons.”
It’s set in the sunny, suburban and largely conservative Santa Clarita Valley and stars Republican Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, former co-owner of a chain of western wear stores turned powerful congressional committee chairman. His wife, Patricia, long by his side during campaigns, has launched her own bid for political office at age 69.
Though it’s unusual to have a husband and wife on the same ballot, the race has another odd twist: Patricia McKeon’s chief rival in the June state Assembly primary is a former staffer to her husband, Scott Wilk.
Patricia McKeon, Wilk and another Republican, Paul Strickland, are running for a seat held by termed-out Assemblyman Cameron Smyth in the solidly GOP 38th District. Democrat Edward Headington also is running.
The McKeons, who will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year, are trying to become the rare couple that holds political office at the same time on both coasts.
Though it’s Patricia McKeon’s first time running for a government office, the mother of six and grandmother of 31 has worked on her husband’s campaigns since the 1970s.
“I even walked in a parade in my high heels behind him passing out literature while he rode in a truck,” she recalled.
She raised about $180,000 through mid-March for her campaign, including a $40,000 personal loan. Wilk raised about $88,000 and accepted a loan from his son for $3,900.
The race has evolved into a Republican family feud.
An anonymous website sprung up mocking Patricia McKeon and her husband and her lack of government experience. The website has been shut down, but it continues to reverberate as a campaign issue.
During a recent candidate forum, McKeon was asked how she squared a GOP pledge to speak no ill of fellow Republicans with her alleged accusations that Wilk was behind the website. Wilk has denied any involvement.
McKeon acknowledged seeking the district attorney’s help in trying to shut down the site but denied she had suggested a connection to Wilk. She released the letter she sent to the district attorney, showing she did not name Wilk. But the office’s reply informing McKeon that the case did not constitute a possible criminal violation noted that it had “received your complaint that California State Assembly Candidate Scott Wilk set up a website with the domain name patriciamckeonforassembly.com without your permission.”
Even Wilk’s wife, Vanessa, has entered the fray. She wrote Rep. McKeon saying that he and his staff have “systematically slandered and attacked my husband because he has the audacity to run for an Assembly seat that you would like your wife, Patricia McKeon, to have.” Her email, first reported by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, was in response to an internal political strategy memo circulated to McKeon staffers.
The race comes as Rep. McKeon, 73, who was Santa Clarita’s first mayor and has represented the area in Congress for two decades, has become a more influential national figure as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
He faces a challenge from Democrat Lee Rogers and Republicans Dante Acosta and Cathie Wright, daughter of a former state legislator of the same name. But the well-funded congressman is favored to win.
Patricia McKeon said she got the idea to run herself after being charged 10 cents per grocery bag at the supermarket. “It just made me furious,” she said.
She portrays herself as one of the unsung heroes of suburban family life, someone who has raised a family and volunteered with the PTA and other community organizations. She says such roles are important because they reflect values that “make up the fabric of our community.”
When she told her husband she planned to run, he said: “OK. You’ve supported me for 49 years, and I’m going to do everything I can to help you.”
The congressman has contributed the maximum $7,800 from his campaign fund to his wife’s campaign and $3,900 from his leadership PAC.
Patricia McKeon, who has held one Washington, D.C., fundraiser and is planning another for May, has received contributions from a number of defense contractors, including $1,000 from Boeing’s PAC; $3,000 from Lockheed Martin; and $3,900 from General Dynamics.
Rep. McKeon is the top congressional recipient of defense industry contributions this election cycle, with $386,550 in donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He dismissed suggestions that such contributions to his wife were the result of any arm twisting.
“She’s made lots of friends here,” he said. “When they found out she was running, they offered to help.”
But Craig Holman of the watchdog Public Citizen said, “The fact that Patricia McKeon is running for office and is seeking campaign contributions provides the contractors with an ideal opportunity to throw money to the spouse, and in turn endear themselves to the congressman.”
The couple have drawn scrutiny for the salary Patricia McKeon has received while working on her husband’s campaigns. She’s been paid more than $300,000 over the last five years and is still on his campaign payroll.
Some other lawmakers have put family members on their campaign payrolls, a practice that is legal as long as the relative does bona fide work and isn’t paid significantly more than the market rate. Still, the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said in a recent report: “Payments to close family members raise questions of self-dealing.”
Congressman McKeon, defending the payments, said his wife runs the campaign office and files campaign finance reports. He added that she also worked on his campaign without pay for years.
The 53-year-old Wilk cites his 51/2 years with McKeon’s staff in the Santa Clarita Valley, along with his work for two state legislators and his service on the Santa Clarita Community College District board, as giving him the better resume to serve in Sacramento.
“I’m not running because I don’t want to pay 10 cents for a grocery bag,” he says on his website.
Wilk said the McKeons knew he was preparing to run for the seat when a McKeon aide showed up at his door one night to inform him that Patricia McKeon had decided to run.
“I kind of just think they thought they’re the McKeons, and Scott’s just going to roll over,” he said.
Rep. McKeon welcomes his wife’s candidacy and said: “Now we’re finding out who our real friends are.”
Strickland, the other Republican in the race, recently scored an endorsement from the California Teachers Assn., which usually backs Democrats.