MODESTO, Calif. — Rep. Gary A. Condit for the first time has admitted to investigators that he had a romantic relationship with Chandra Ann Levy, the Associated Press reported yesterday.
In his third interview with Washington police and FBI agents Friday night, Mr. Condit admitted that his relationship with Miss Levy, 24, was more than a friendship, said a report by the Associated Press, citing a source familiar to the investigation. The source only discussed the meeting on grounds of not being identified by name.
Mr. Condit had been less direct in describing the relationship in two earlier interviews, the source said. But police reiterated that Mr. Condit is not a suspect in the disappearance of the former federal intern.
Prior to yesterday’s revelations, constituents within Mr. Condit’s district spoke about the scandal, stressing that many of them continue to support the congressman.
John Woycheshin says he’s voted for Mr. Condit before, and he’ll stand by him now, despite the whiff of scandal blowing around the conservative Democratic congressman.
But the 23-year-old store manager seems to harbor some doubts when asked about the brewing scandal.
“I don’t want to believe the accusations,” Mr. Woycheshin says, shaking his head uneasily.
Mr. Condit, 53, has been an unstoppable force in California politics since he was elected to Congress in 1989, filling the spot of Rep. Tony Coehlo, who coincidentally was forced to step down after a scandal — but his involved finances. Local Republicans have mounted only token opposition to Mr. Condit, who controls a well-oiled political machine that keeps constituents happy, delivers federal money to his rural district and has candidates of both parties scrambling for the congressman’s endorsement during election time.
“He does a very good job representing the district … He’s very personable, very easy to talk to. He’s not exactly one who will avoid you,” said Mike Lenahan, regional director for the state Democratic Party.
But that carefully crafted political image began to crumble this spring when 24-year-old Chandra Ann Levy, a Modesto resident, disappeared without a trace in Washington, D.C., just hours before she was to return home from an internship in a federal agency.
In the latest development of the case, Mr. Condit had a third meeting with D.C. police Friday evening.
“We understand the nature of the relationship … we are comfortable with what we have learned,” said Terrance W. Gainer, executive assistant police chief, at a news conference outside D.C. police headquarters last night.
Attempts to reach Mr. Condit and his lawyer Abbe Lowell were unsuccesful last night.
Chief Gainer declined to comment on the nature of the relationship. However, he stressed, the police did not consider Mr. Condit to be involved in her disappearance.
“I don’t believe he had anything to do with her disappearance,” he said.
Chief Gainer had said earlier yesterday that a federal grand jury will not be empaneled in the Levy investigation, refuting a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, and that Mr. Condit is “absolutely not under investigation.”
But the congressman has been thrust into the center of an increasingly bizarre legal and media storm. He has not been linked directly with the disappearance, but he has been widely reported to have been involved romantically with Miss Levy, and perhaps other women as well, and he has gone into near seclusion.
Mr. Condit has refused to speak with the news media and canceled public appearances at traditional Fourth of July celebrations in his district, and he has hired lawyer Abbe Lowell — to whom House Democrats turned for advice during the impeachment of President Clinton — to represent him.
Back home in his sprawling rural district, in the northern end of the fertile San Joaquin Valley, all this drama is not playing well.
“I am a Democrat, and every time I hear something about this, it makes me sick,” Jan Tate, a retired restaurant owner, said as she shopped on a sweltering and dusty day in the Central Valley. “It’s just another scandal for the Democrats, and we don’t need that.”
It isn’t so much that she is worried that the bad press will hurt Mr. Condit at re-election time in 2002, she said. In fact, her concern is much more ominous for the longtime congressman.
“I am worried he did something,” Mrs. Tate said.
Larry Powell, a barber in downtown Modesto, said his customers have been talking incessantly of the Condit-Levy case for weeks. At first, he said, they expressed surprise and support for Mr. Condit. But recently, Mr. Powell said, people who claim to know the Condit family well have begun to hint darkly that “none of this surprises them.”
“I’ve heard that three or four times,” Mr. Powell said.
This sort of scandal is rare in a quiet place like Modesto, an aging agricultural town that proudly proclaims, in a soaring neon sign at a main entrance to downtown, that it stands for “Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health.”
Modesto is the central city of the huge 18th Congressional District, which spreads from the suburbs of Sacramento down to Fresno. It was populated originally by farmers migrating from the Midwest, and they brought their conservative politics with them. Although the voter registration is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, it has long been considered friendly Republican territory.
Had it not been for Mr. Condit’s fiscally conservative politics — he is a founding member of the “Blue Dog” caucus of conservative House Democrats — and formidable political skill, the seat might have gone long ago to Republicans, as have many of the nearby congressional districts.
This district, however, is changing gradually, residents say. In recent years, the high cost of living in the San Francisco Bay area, driven by the high-tech boom, has forced young professionals into the district looking for low-cost real estate. The newcomers tend to be Republicans, say local officials, but less conservative than the more traditional Republicans of Southern California.
Normally, Mr. Condit’s brand of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism might appeal to the Bay Area newcomers, but Jim DeMartini, chairman of the Stanislaus County Republican Central Committee, said that the congressman’s closeness to the Levy scandal gives Republicans a unique chance finally to capture his seat. It may even help in local races, where Mr. Condit’s once unassailable prestige and political skill boosted Democratic candidates.
“We’re not making a big deal out of this. … We’re just watching this guy self-destruct,” Mr. DeMartini said. “He doesn’t need any help from us. He is doing a pretty good job himself.”
Though the scandal has generated intense gossip on Capitol Hill, House Democrats generally have been supportive of Mr. Condit.
“It’s obviously a big deal and surprising to everybody because Condit is a quiet member of the caucus,” said a House Democratic leadership aide. “He’s not flashy. … Most of the members have been supportive of him and don’t really consider it any of their business, as long as he’s cooperating with the police. I don’t think it’s affected any relationships.”
Many Republicans also have been surprised by the allegations surrounding Mr. Condit’s ties to Miss Levy. “[He was] somebody who had a strong sense of self and religious grounding, … somebody you would want to have as a friend — a good, modest thoughtful man,” former Rep. Rick Lazio, New York Republican, said on the television show “Inside Edition” in an interview to be broadcast this week. “[He] was a straight shooter and somebody who was humble.”
The House ethics committee, which has the power to investigate accusations of wrongdoing by members, has not indicated publicly any intention of looking into the matter. A spokesman for the panel declined to comment on Mr. Condit.
Lawmakers also say their wait-and-see attitude stems from a lack of information about Miss Levy’s fate.
Mr. Condit comes from a well-regarded family. His father, the Rev. Adrian Condit, is the chaplain at Modesto Memorial Hospital. The younger Mr. Condit was a successful state and local politician before he was elected to Congress. He has never lost an election during his 30-year political career.
Yet, for all of Mr. Condit’s electoral success, the scandal appears to have dimmed his political star. Local newspapers, which generally have been supportive of Mr. Condit over the years, have begun calling on him to be more forthcoming about his relationship with Miss Levy.
Mr. Condit has refused resolutely to answer questions from the news media, and on Thursday Mr. Lowell, his lawyer, issued a statement saying the congressman would not make any public comments on Miss Levy’s disappearance.
Dave Boyer, Vaishali Honawar and Rebecca McClay contributed to this report.