Last May, Mark Kirk (R-10th District) seemed headed for an easy victory in his race for a U.S. Senate seat in Illinois, leading Alexi Giannoulias 45 to 38 percent in the polls. Then, over Memorial Day weekend, news broke of exaggerations on Kirk’s impressive resume. That handed a slight lead to his opponent, the Illinois treasurer who is saddled with his own problems—the failure of his family’s bank and smelly loans to mobsters and to Tony Rezko.
Yesterday, I ran excerpts of my conversation with Kirk’s ex-wife, Kimberly Vertolli, in which she discussed the “Svengali figure” behind his campaign, Dodie McCracken. Here, Vertolli offers her take on what would seem to be Kirk’s perplexingly unnecessary exaggerations. She adds that, despite some missteps in his campaign, in the race between Kirk and Giannoulias, she would vote for her ex.
CF: How do you explain the resume padding, and how much did it hurt?
KV: I think [McCracken] poorly advised Mark on how to handle that. Dodie is the one who controls what is said, how it’s said, to whom its said.
CF: Do you mean the Intelligence Officer of the Year award that Kirk said went to him but actually went to his unit?
KV: I don’t think it’s as bad as it might appear to some people, because Mark had no intent of deceit. He was the intelligence officer of the year because he was the head of the unit, and it was a big deal what they did. Mark was the one who decided who was on his team; Mark was the one who decided who got what authority. Mark [coordinated] multiple squadrons with complicated data from all different sources, making sure they have an accurate picture, because as an intel officer, if you don’t get it right, your guys can die. So to me, the point is he kicked ass, he was phenomenal. I don’t think it was intentional or that he was trying to deceive anyone. I’m disappointed with the way it was handled.
CF: Kirk was slammed for claiming to be in charge of the War Room in the Pentagon when he really was not. Do you have personal experience with the War Room?
KV: We met in the War Room at the Pentagon [in February 1998]. I was serving as an active-duty naval intelligence officer in the Pentagon. Yes, Mark was in charge, and Mark continues to be in charge. If people really understand what he’s doing when he’s in the Naval Reserve, it makes Mark look even more impressive than he already appears to be.
CF: As these things seeped out, it made Kirk seem kind of silly or buffoonish.
KV: I said, “Mark you’ve never done anything to be intentionally deceitful. Don’t hide, don’t run, don’t stick your head in the sand and hope that it goes away, face them.” But [McCracken] encourages him to avoid the press, avoid confronting any kind of issue—just hide. That might help you in the short term, but in the long term, people want and deserve answers. Ninety-five percent of the time, he gets it right.
CF: What about the story of the sailboat rescue by the Coast Guard when he was 16? He was rescued in mid-afternoon but he claimed to have watched the sun set as he stood on his capsized sailboat—and faced the possibility that he would die.
KV: Who cares? He was 16. That’s not a big deal whether the sun was setting. The point was that he made a mistake in trying to get back to the shore, and he did almost drown. He was rescued by the Coast Guard. It did really make him think, “Oh, my god, life is short, I could have died. What would I have wanted to do if I hadn’t died?” That’s the whole point of it. Now we’re quibbling about whether it was sunset or three in the afternoon, what was his body temperature?
CF: What about alleged misstatements about teaching pre-school?
KV: That’s ridiculous. He never said he had tenure. He was a nursery school teacher. He did teach kids.
CF: What impression do you have of Alexi Giannoulias?
KV: I think he has no business running for the seat. He’s inexperienced, unqualified, he has a terrible record whenever the public’s trust has been placed in him. I don’t think he’s necessarily a bad person; he’s a typical silver spoon candidate. He used daddy’s money to get the position of Illinois treasurer.
CF: If you were still registered to vote in Illinois could you see yourself casting a ballot for Mark Kirk?
KV: Oh, absolutely. Great leaders have foibles, they’re not perfect, they’re human beings, they disappoint us sometimes. The best we can do is use our best judgment with the choices we have and do our best to influence them to go on the right path. If I had the choice between Mark Kirk and Alexi Giannoulias, it’s not hard. I’m really disappointed that Obama is going to be coming out and campaigning for Giannoulias. I think it’s beneath [the President.] [Obama] knows about those risky lending practices [of the Giannoulias family’s Broadway Bank]. Giannoulias has horrible judgment, and the President knows it.
CF: Do you think Mark Kirk will win in November?
KV: I feel pretty confident he’s going to win.
CF: Do you have any political ambition in your future?
KV: None whatsoever.
No response yet from the Kirk campaign.