Kimberly Vertolli and Mark Kirk in 2000
In this photo from March 2000, Rep. Mark Kirk celebrates his congressional victory with his then-fiancée Kimberly Vertolli, now his ex-wife.  Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

Her marriage to Rep. Mark Kirk (R-10th Dist.) may have ended amicably in June 2009, and the two may remain friends today, but Kimberly Vertolli said that she will not “advocate” for her ex in his Senate run because she fears he is too influenced by a “Svengali figure” in his life—a former staffer named Dorothy “Dodie” McCracken.

Vertolli, 37, a former naval intelligence officer who was married to Kirk for eight years, told me in a telephone interview last week that she loves him and “want[s] him to be happy,” but she says that McCracken—Kirk’s press secretary during his first term—is “trying to control Mark and the direction of Mark’s campaign.” For example, Vertolli blames McCracken for the congressman’s support of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which bans openly gay people from serving in the military. Vertolli, a lawyer now living in the Virginia suburbs of D.C., added that Kirk assured her, “when the issue came up again, he’s going to do the right thing and support overturning that policy.”

Dodie McCracken, 52, is a former Winnetka resident who now works as consultant in D.C. She heads up a PR firm called Arcadian Partners and is a volunteer consultant to the Kirk campaign. (According to the Arcadian website, McCracken has focused during her career “on work with non-profit organizations, cause-related activities and public service”; examples are the U.S. National Guard and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.)

I contacted Kirk’s office to ask him to discuss McCracken’s influence on the campaign. Kirsten Kukowski, Kirk's communications director, promised a response, but it was not received by post time. UPDATE: Dodie McCracken e-mailed me shortly after the post went up. Her response was limited to confirming factual information about her age and role in the Kirk campaign.

Friends of Vertolli and Kirk told me the two remain close, and that Kimberly, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Acade­my at Annapolis and of Northwestern Law, raised money for her ex-husband’s campaign. Vertolli’s admiration for Kirk is obvious. “He really is accomplished, he is very smart, and he does have good intentions for serving and protecting the people who he wishes to serve,” she said. Their union produced no children, but the couple still shares a devotion to a 12-year-old Shih Tzu named Sophie, a birthday gift from Kirk in 1998.

I tracked Vertolli down last week in New Jersey, where she is working as general counsel to a family-run company there. Politically progressive and starkly direct, Vertolli called Kirk’s race against Democrat Alexi Giannoulias “a big part of my life.” She ducked few questions, including rumors that Kirk, a moderate Republican who has represented the North Shore since 2001, is gay. He’s not, she says, elaborating on that, and much more, in this—part one of the edited transcript of our conversation:

CF: Will you be hitting the stump for Mark Kirk in Illinois?
KV: I have always served as Mark’s moral conscience. And as long as he maintains his moral conscience and remembers why he ran [for Congress]—because we decided together to run, I was then his fiancée—I support him.

CF: How has he done so far on exercising that moral conscience on issues?
KV: I’ll give you one solid example. I lobbied him on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign, [an organization that promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, of which Vertolli is a member, donor, and volunteer]. I passionately support their drive to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Mark voted against the Murphy amendment [to repeal DADT, named for Pennsylvania Democrat Patrick Murphy, passed by the House this past May]. Therefore, he voted in favor of maintaining a discriminatory policy against gays and lesbians who are serving us in the military. I privately withdrew my support because to me that’s a basic human right. I will not support a candidate who upholds a policy that discriminates against gays and lesbians.

CF: That’s where you are now?
KV: No. He assured me that when the issue came up again, he’s going to do the right thing and support overturning that policy. He has a very good rating with the Human Rights Campaign. He’s one of the most pro-gay rights Republicans we have.

CF: So at this moment, with that promise, is it your intention to support him and campaign for him?
KV: No, I will not because there’s a person who is a very pernicious force on his team who is wielding a disproportionate amount of negative influence on him. As long as she’s there, I can’t be his moral conscience.

CF: Who is that person?
KV: Her name is Dodie McCracken. She is the only member of Mark’s staff who was not invited to our wedding back in 2001. She acts as this kind of Svengali figure in his life. She had to go away.

CF: Why did she have to go away?
KV: Because Mark could either stay married to me, or she could find another place. But there wasn’t enough room for the two of us to stay in Mark’s life.

CF: Did she come back on the scene after you were divorced?
KV: Unfortunately, she never left. When Mark decided to run for the Senate, she shifted most of her attention [from other clients] to trying to control Mark and the direction of Mark’s campaign.

CF: Is there any kind of insinuation that there’s any kind of romance going on between them?
KV: I will not characterize their relationship.

CF: Is McCracken to the right politically of Kirk?
KV: She is.

CF: If Kirk wins, what would she want to be? His chief of staff?
KV: I think she would like to be able to control the direction of Mark’s politics in any way that she can, whether it’s on his staff or continuing as a consultant. Mark is a good soul. Mark went into politics because he knew that he was smart and had a lot of great ideas. One of the things that we share is the value of protecting Israel as an ally. We share human rights values… to protect people who are vulnerable. If you just follow your party under the flag of Democrat or Republican, inevitably, you sell out the very people that you came there to help. When [Dodie McCracken] advocates that he does things … just to cater to the right wing or to special interest groups, it ultimately hurts Mark because it hurts his credibility.

CF: On which other issues has Mark disappointed you?
KV: Unemployment benefits for the neediest of Americans. That was another recent clash we had. They are not unemployed because they like sitting around eating Ho Ho’s and cashing their huge checks. These people need to put food on the table, and they’re going to spend it on the economy right away. That’s a no brainer. If you have to even think about that, there’s something wrong with your moral compass.

CF: Are you a Democrat?
KV: No, I’m very adamantly not a Democrat, adamantly not a Republican. I’m passionately independent.

CF: Whom did you vote for president in 2008?
KV: I filled in a name. I never voted for George W. Bush. That was a persistent clash between us during our marriage. I have never been in favor of the direction of [Bush] or the direction he wanted to take our country, and I’m an ex-CIA officer, too. I’m very familiar with the way that they used the agency to advance their own agenda.

CF: Do you think that continues in the Obama administration?
KV: No, I really don’t think so. I have a very positive impression of President Obama. I think he’s highly intelligent and has a moral conscience. I think he does the best he can with the economy and with the wars that he has inherited [from] irresponsible, arrogant leaders of the past.

CF: Will you vote for Obama’s re-election in 2012?
KV: Yes, at this point I would.

CF: Was it political differences that contributed to you and Mark divorcing?
KV: I think that if Dodie McCracken had not continued to be in our lives, we probably would still be married.

CF: What about the rumors that Mark Kirk is gay?
KV: That’s been going on since he first ran. It’s highly unusual for a man to have been married to a woman for eight years and not produced children. And it’s unusual for a man to have not been married until he’s 40 years old. [Kirk was 41]. So people get suspicious. It’s human nature. When we don’t understand something, we want to attach an explanation to it. It’s not an accurate explanation that Mark is gay, but nevertheless, that’s how some people choose to reconcile it.

Stayed tuned for part two of my conversation with Vertolli, coming Thursday. In it, she addresses recent news stories that Kirk exaggerated his achievements—everything from his military record to time working in a pre-school classroom—and offers her take on Alexi Giannoulias.