The city's mayor, riding a wave of unprecedented popularity, suddenly was hit with one of the oldest indiscretions in politics. His long marriage was in trouble. Worse, the faithful wife had filed for divorce. Worse still, there was another woman.

For the man once regarded as a front-runner to succeed the incumbent governor and possibly even reach a national office, the future was in crisis-control mode.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa?

Not quite. The man in trouble was then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, now the front-runner among Republican presidential candidates - showing there can be political success even after divorce, infidelity and scandal.

"Giuliani broke the mold," said national political watcher Steve Benen, who writes for Washington Monthly magazine. "Giuliani marched in a St. Patrick's Day parade with his mistress and then announced that he was getting a divorce in a press conference - before his wife knew anything about it."

That candidates have been able to overcome the stigma of infidelity should encourage Villaraigosa backers and give pause to naysayers who suggest that Villaraigosa's marital breakup - and subsequent admission that he is seeing another woman - could


dim his rising political star.

"It's a new ballgame," said L.A. political consultant Joe Cerrell. "All you have to do is look at Giuliani, and he's not alone."

The other woman

Until Villaraigosa's admission this week that he had a "relationship" with television newswoman Mirthala Salinas, rumors were rampant about who the other woman might be. But experts say that while that kind of chatter can shock and titillate, it might not have a lasting impact on Villaraigosa's career.

In a hotly contested presidential race, three Republicans - Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and actor and former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee - all have publicly weathered divorces. In the cases of McCain and Giuliani, they've also weathered extramarital scandal.

In 1979, McCain began courting a 25-year-old former cheerleader while still married and living with his wife, who had raised their three children while he was a POW in Vietnam, according to published reports. McCain divorced his wife, married the ex-cheerleader months later, then launched his political career with his new wife's family money.

About the same time, Ronald Reagan proved that Americans were willing to elect a divorced man as president. He had been married to actress Jane Wyman before his marriage to Nancy.

And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another GOP candidate, has been divorced twice amid scandalous circumstances.

According to his first wife, who had helped put him through graduate school, he forced her to discuss divorce terms while she was recovering from cancer surgery. Gingrich's second divorce in 2000 came after an acknowledged affair with the woman who became his current wife.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Villaraigosa will face more political backlash as people dig deeper into his personal life in search of other indiscretions, said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

"It's bad enough for some people to acknowledge he's been having an affair over a period of months. If it's limited to that and between elections, he's still going to be in pretty good shape unless the lid that's open finds a certain pattern of promiscuity since he's been in the Mayor's Office," Regalado said.


Political historian Michael Beschloss said the press typically has kept stories of political peccadillos under wraps because a "tacit assumption was that the American people were not grown-up enough to assimilate that kind of news."

But, Beschloss said, the Watergate scandal spotlighted political corruption and illustrated the importance of character and integrity: "If candidates can't bear up under full disclosure, they have no business being in politics." Beschloss and others point to the 1990s and the extramarital troubles of President Clinton as the time when the political climate began changing to include a higher tolerance among voters for marital indiscretions.

"It wasn't until 2000 that McCain, possibly emboldened by Clinton's survival of his scandals, became the first confessed adulterer to have the nerve to run," said Steve Benen, a freelance writer and researcher and creator of "Now, just a few years after infidelity was considered a deal-breaker for a presidential candidate, the party that presents itself as the arbiter of virtue may field an unprecedented two-timing trifecta."

Tolerance for divorce

Experts say it all bodes well for politicians, especially rising darlings like Villaraigosa and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has also been mentioned as a future gubernatorial contender.

Earlier this year, while going through a divorce from his wife, TV commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle, Newsom admitted to having an affair with the wife of his re-election campaign manager.

It also speaks to a curious phenomenon among voters - that they will tolerate in their political leaders what they would not in their spouses.

After all, Villaraigosa has admitted infidelity in the past, an affair that prompted Corina Villaraigosa to file for divorce in 1994.

"People have a certain image of a political leader and, if that image is strong enough, it can't be shaken," said Steven Mintz, co-chairman of the Council On Contemporary Families, a nonprofit research think tank based at the University of Houston. "The image people have of Giuliani is that of a strong leader, and it's helped him survive."

Mintz said he also believes the country has gone through what he calls "morality fatigue."

"When something like this occurred the first time, society was disapproving," he said. "But then there's a second time and a third and so on, and society gets accustomed.

"When Nelson Rockefeller ran for president (in 1964), his divorce destroyed his campaign. But by 1976, people were accustomed to politicians who had been divorced, and Ronald Reagan was able to make a serious run at the (Republican) nomination. By 1980, he could get elected without divorce being an issue."

In fact, only a small minority of voters - mostly evangelicals and political conservatives - care about candidates' infidelities.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 62 percent of Republican respondents, but only 25 percent of Democrats, said they would be less likely to support a candidate who had an extramarital affair.

"Americans understand that political marriages are complicated, that they're not exactly like every other marriage or romance under the sun," Mintz said.

Mintz also draws a distinction between Villaraigosa's marital breakup and affair with the political demise of one-time Democratic darling Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio and Clinton administration Cabinet member.

"Cisneros was haunted by an affair that ruined his political career," Mintz said. "But what made his situation different was the financial shenanigans that showed this to be more than a sexual affair."

Cisneros, according to reports and court documents, reached a secret agreement to buy his mistress' silence, then lied about it to the FBI during his Cabinet appointment vetting. It was a felony that led to his forced resignation and plea bargain.

For his part, Villaraigosa has made all the right crisis-control moves, experts agree. Even his much-criticized press conference last month, when he refused to address questions about the breakup, served its purpose - to publicly accept blame for the failure of the marriage.

"I know it may seem like the end of the world for Villaraigosa right now," Benen said, "but in the overall scheme of things, history is on his side."

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