Sex Degrees of Separation: The Fight for Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat


When it comes to Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat, the movie might be called "Sex Degrees of Separation."


Admittedly, the nation's cable-fueled interest in Illinois politics expectedly waned after the resignation of Gov. Rod Blagojevich; his wife's exit as a contestant on a reality TV show; and the announcement by truth-challenged Roland Burris, the well-meaning mediocrity selected to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat, that he won't run for a full term next year.


So now the race is a total muddle with only one sure thing: moderate Republican congressman Mark Kirk, who announced his candidacy Sunday, is supported by his newly ex-wife. This does serve as a reminder of the complexity of passions linked to this seat.

Mark and Kimberly Vertolli-Kirk, an attorney and graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, met while they were on intelligence duty at the Pentagon. And she did live with him for a period after he won the suburban Chicago seat long ago held by Donald Rumsfeld. But then she returned fulltime to Virginia in 2006. Several months ago, they were divorced.


Thus, one had to do a double-take Monday, especially given the recent sex scandals involving prominent Republicans Mark Sanford and John Ensign, when Kirk's formal announcement included a cameo appearance by his now ex-wife.  In a move worthy of the late Michael Deaver, Ronald Reagan's stagecraft director, or more recent political maestros such as David Axelrod, she surfaced briefly from Kirk's childhood home, leaned over his should and announced, "I support him 100 percent. He'll make a great senator," then departed, no questions taken. Cecil B. DeMille would have been proud.


What is it about this Senate seat?


For those who don't know or recall, Obama's 2004 run for the position was rife with broken and disputed affairs of the heart. Blair Hull, a moneybags Democrat whom some saw as the favorite to win the nomination, imploded for various reasons, including word that the woman who was both his ex-wife No. 2 and No. 3 had taken out an order of protection against him. That prompted ex-wife No. 1 to rally to his defense, indicating he'd been great with the children.


Then the seemingly alluring Republican nominee, charismatic investment banker Jack Ryan, went down in flames when his divorce records revealed having taken his actress-wife to New York sex clubs.


Now we have Kirk, the source of much distrust among diehard conservatives. Already there's been whispering, most recent on a Chicago radio station, about the extent to which he represents "family values."


In sum, folks raise doubts about the marriage, and lack of children, and, ah, well, you can guess what Kirk is going to face. Do not bet how this will turn out.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of the Daily Beast/Newsweek and an MSNBC analyst. He's former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. More

James Warren is a former manager, editor and Washington bureau chief of The Chicago Tribune. An ink-stained wretch, he's labored at The Newark Star-Ledger, The Chicago Sun-Times, and the Tribune in a variety of positions, including financial reporter, legal affairs reporter-columnist, labor writer, media writer-columnist and features editor. The Washingtonian once tagged him one of the town's 50 most influential journalists (he thinks he was 46, the number worn by Andy Pettitte, a pitcher for his beloved New York Yankees). He's a political analyst for MSNBC. He was recently publisher and president of the Chicago Reader, and is now policy columnist for Business Week and twice-a-week Chicago columnist for The New York Times (you can find his handiwork on the paper's website and on new Chicago pages produced for Friday's and Sunday's Midwest print editions by the nonprofit Chicago News Cooperative, which he held to start). A native New Yorker, he's a happy resident of the wonderful, if ethically challenged, City of Chicago, where he lives just north of decaying Wrigley Field with his Pulitzer Prize-winning wife, Cornelia, and their sons, Blair and Eliot. Blair's t-ball team is, yes, the Yankees.

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