Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009 | 2 a.m.
No one expects a rowdy crowd when Republican Sen. John Ensign takes the stage today in Lake Tahoe, one of his first public appearances in Nevada since disclosing an affair with his best friend’s wife, a former staff member.
Attendees at the annual summit on the health of the treasured lake are unlikely to ask uncomfortable questions about the affair or the money his parents gave the woman and her family.
The senator’s office wants it that way.
Ensign is carefully orchestrating his reemergence before voters. His first public speech, before a Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday in rural Fernley, was mostly kept quiet until the Associated Press reported that the senator earned a standing ovation from the 100 people gathered.
As the crisis-managed effort to rehabilitate Ensign’s image unfolds, Nevadans will be taking stock of their relationship with the second-term senator.
Former Republican Gov. Bob List, now the Nevada Republican Party’s national committeeman, said the senator “needs to get out and look people in the eye and say, ‘I’ve made a mistake.’ ”
“People, they want to be confident that all the facts are out there and behind him and there’s a real sense that he understands the lessons that come from this whole experience, and he is on a good path now,” List said, noting that most supporters in Nevada have not seen Ensign since the affair became public in June.
“His closest friends, they probably want to hear a little bit of a mea culpa.”
Ryan Erwin, a Republican political consultant in Nevada, said there are pressing issues before Congress, including health care and debt spending, on which voters expect Ensign to play a role.
“His best avenue for getting all this behind him is by doing a good job,” Erwin said. “The more public he is, the more available he is, the better over the long term.”
The struggling Nevada Republican Party was blindsided by Ensign’s disclosure in June that he had a months-long affair with Cynthia Hampton, his former campaign treasurer, whose husband, Doug Hampton, was one of the senator’s top aides at the time.
Ensign’s supporters were still adjusting to the newly changed political landscape when the senator further disclosed that his parents had given $96,000 to the woman and her family as she and her husband were leaving Ensign’s employment in April 2008. The affair ended that summer.
Trust is a fragile thing between elected officials and those who elect them, and Ensign’s supporters have been on edge, wondering if another shoe will drop.
The fallout has been wide and deep.
Ensign resigned his leadership position in Washington, halting the state party’s chances at having a rising national star. His approval rating plummeted to 31 percent and his announcement came at a pivotal moment, as campaigns are getting under way for the 2010 election.
Republican Rep. Dean Heller, the national party’s top choice to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, prolonged his decision on whether to enter the Senate race as the scandal unfolded, sending ripples of uncertainty up and down the state Republican ticket.
Heller ultimately declined to take on Reid, and has since disclosed that having Ensign sidelined contributed to his decision. “I had anticipated in a good campaign like this Sen. Ensign being there with me,” Heller said during a televised interview on “Face to Face With Jon Ralston.”
Ensign has pressed on, returning to legislative normalcy in Washington, delivering floor speeches, casting votes and attending party meetings.
The senator has vowed not to resign and to seek reelection when his term is up in 2012.
During his 1998 run for the Senate, Ensign criticized former President Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern and called on the president to step down.
Ensign told the AP on Wednesday that his situation differs from that of Clinton, who lied about the affair before a grand jury. “I haven’t done anything legally wrong,” Ensign said.
Ensign’s decision to seek a third term was greeted with silence in Washington, as party leaders said it was for Nevada voters to decide whether Ensign should stay or go. In Nevada, few Republicans raced to Ensign’s side.
Richard Scotti, the newly elected chairman of the Clark County Republican Party, said Ensign still represents the best of the policy positions embraced by the party — Ensign voted against the Wall Street bailout and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court, and he opposes the health care reform proposal.
“It was unfortunate, his personal situation,” Scotti acknowledged. “It hurts, but it’s not going to hurt our chances.”
Ensign last month issued a statement apologizing for the situation and saying his attorney had advised him not to speak further about it.
Conservative activist Chuck Muth said there are questions that Ensign needs to answer as he returns to Nevada.
Ensign’s attorney has called the $96,000 given to Cynthia Hampton and her family a gift. But if it was a severance, as Doug Hampton has called it, Ensign could face felony charges of violation of campaign finance law.
An ethics group has called for investigations by the FBI, the Federal Election Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee.
Muth said Ensign owes voters a full explanation of the payment as well as the employer-employee relationship between Ensign and Cynthia Hampton during the course of the affair.
At the Fernley luncheon Wednesday, Ensign told those gathered he made a big mistake, acknowledged the “distraction” and said he intends to gain back the trust of Nevadans, according to the AP.
Erwin, the political consultant, said the extent to which Ensign uses his public appearances to discuss the affair is the senator’s call. “On family issues, he has to decide,” he said.