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Meshoppen Postcard: Choker

It’s Labor Day at the Wyoming County Fair in Meshoppen, Pennsylvania, and the campaign season is underway. At the Wyoming County Democrats booth, Chris Carney, an earnest young Naval Reserve commander-turned-professor who is running for Congress, entertains a steady stream of voters. Carney, the challenger, is stumping hard—there’s speculation that if he can win in the strongly conservative Tenth District, Democrats can take back the House—and, soon, his booth runs out of yard signs. One might expect a similar scene at the GOP booth a few yards away. But no one, save for a few county party officials, is there—not even the district’s incumbent Republican representative, Don Sherwood.

Instead, Sherwood, a grandfatherly man in a checkered shirt and work boots, can be found at the bottom of a short hill, away from the fair’s lively bustle, standing by a horsey-smelling mud patch. As he has almost every year for 15 years, Sherwood is helping lead a traditional farm competition called a horsepull, in which teams of Belgian Draft horses try to haul toboggans stacked with 1,000-pound concrete blocks 27-and-a-half feet along a strip of dirt. Usually, Sherwood helps load the concrete blocks onto the sled, but, a few weeks earlier, the 65-year-old had a heart procedure; so this year, he just hangs out, unannounced, chatting on his walkie-talkie. Although the race’s first independent poll, released two weeks ago, has Sherwood seven points behind Carney, he is more passionate about discussing the drama of the horsepull than the upcoming election. “Oooh!” Sherwood whistles, in the middle of a question about his campaign: A pair of Belgians has stepped over the out- of-bounds line. “It’s a psychological game,” Sherwood tells me in a low voice. “If a teamster decides [his horses] can’t pull it, he’ll quit, because he doesn’t want to teach them they can’t pull it.”

This calculus does not, it seems, apply to Sherwood himself. Despite the fact that he is facing the toughest challenge of his political career, Sherwood is surprisingly sanguine about his ability to pull his sled back to Washington. “I’m pretty well-known in the district—it’s a lot of country people,” he says. “I think we’ll have it under control.” Kicking back at the horsepull rather than joining the lawn-sign brigade might be a reflection of this confidence. But it might also be a way to hide out and avoid pressing the flesh—a potentially freighted activity for this embattled congressman. For, in addition to the considerable liabilities that come with being a Republican incumbent this fall, Sherwood has a highly original one of his own: In 2004, his 29-year- old mistress accused him of trying to strangle her during a massage. That’s right. Dennis Hastert and his party could lose the House thanks to a backrub gone awry.

THE TALE OF DON SHERWOOD’S rise is a post-1994 Republican fairy tale, in which a sensible Everyman ascends from the dusty walks of rural America to the halls of the Capitol. Returning home from the Army in 1966 with the entrepreneurial itch, Sherwood founded a car dealership in his Wyoming County hometown and was soon elected to the local school board. Over decades selling cars and building schools, he became known for his genial, can-do personality. In 1998, he made a longshot bid for Congress against a member of the Casey family, Pennsylvania political royalty. Nobody thought Sherwood could win, but, after mobilizing nearly 2,000 volunteers and campaigning on family values and lower taxes, he was elected by 515 votes—the closest victory in the country that night.

After another close race in 2000, the Republican state legislature redrew the Tenth District for Sherwood with the same tender care a man takes in building a dream house for his beloved. Blue Scranton was expertly excised from the east side, and rural, traditional segments of five counties were tacked onto the bottom. Sherwood also won a seat on the House Appropriations Committee- -setting him up to bring home treats like a $12 million grant to reclaim abandoned mine land. His new, gerrymandered district was so conservative—and so in love with his capacity to deliver pork— that even Democrats didn’t seem to mind that he was a Bush loyalist. In the 2002 elections, Sherwood got enough write-in votes in the Democratic primary that he appeared on the final ballot as both the Republican and the Democratic candidate. As an unrepentant admirer who called himself Moon put it at the fair, the Tenth had become “Donnie Country.”

Sherwood flourished in Washington as well, moving into Hill House, a reality show-ready Capitol Hill dormitory in which nearly half the rooms are occupied by legislators. Though he had a wife and kids back home, Sherwood enjoyed the Washington scene. “In most cities, the nightlife’s on the weekends, but, in Washington, it’s Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday!” he tells me. In 1999, at a Young Republicans event, he met Cynthia Ore, a Peruvian-American grocery-store heiress and aspiring Hill intern in her early twenties. She was attracted to his salt-of-the-earth charm. “Guys in D.C. try to be so suave,” she later recalled in a newspaper interview. “They drive Bentleys and Ferraris. Don has a truck.”

But, by September 15, 2004, Sherwood’s country charm had worn thin. That was the day Ore called the police from the bathroom of his apartment in Hill House, claiming he had tried to throttle her. When the police arrived, Sherwood protested that he’d merely been giving Ore a vigorous backrub. The police, for their part, determined that Ore did not seem to be “of sound mind.” A year later, after their report was made public, Ore sued Sherwood for $5.5 million, but the matter was dispatched with a settlement.

Whether Sherwood was really choking or massaging may never be known. But the episode, while no Chappaquiddick, was pretty sordid for the Tenth. “Nobody has any morals anymore,” one constituent lamented in the local paper. And yet, Sherwood vowed to run again. Signs of trouble for his bid appeared long before this Labor Day. In May, despite having raised more than $1 million, Sherwood was nearly derailed by a primary challenger who spent less than $5,000 on her campaign and won 44 percent of the vote. Sherwood’s underwhelming showing “shocked the political establishment in the state,” says Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College, and led the Cook Political Report, the Rothenberg Political Report, and Congressional Quarterly to upgrade the race’s competitiveness.

But Sherwood and his campaign staff seem only vaguely concerned about their precarious situation. As of press time, he has no campaign website. When I saw him at the fair, he had not sent out any mailings, nor done any TV ads (he recently went on the air, nearly a month after Carney). A call to the state committee revealed that no upcoming campaign events were on record there. “I don’t know why,” offered the perplexed committee staffer. “I guess we haven’t been told about any.”

Though some might chalk it up to incompetence, Sherwood and his staff imply that their lay-low strategy is intentional—that they understand things about how the race will play out that others don’t. “The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats will take over the House, and Republicans aren’t running good campaigns,” a Sherwood staffer explains. “If you look at that, it’s not true. People here are everyday people. They relate to somebody like Sherwood.” As for the affair’s impact on the race, when I ask Sherwood about the settlement, he replies, with a strange smile, “Do you think there was a settlement?”

What about the terrible primary, the disappointing poll? Worrying about how numbers stack up, the staffer explains, is a bad habit some Democrats have— specifically those who attended liberal arts colleges. “Being a student of Aristotle,” he says, “you look at logic. Well, in 2000, there were more registered Democrats in the district, and Don still won.”

In the end, aside from the sense of entitlement generated by the “Donnie Country” phenomenon, aside from the belief that the apparent national wish for change is a fad, and aside from denial of facts (on the poll: “We think the results are crap,” Sherwood spokesman Jake O’Donnell told a local paper), there is an element of pure mysticism driving the Sherwood campaign. Rejecting the cold science of the Democrats, they keep faith with the justice of the heavens.

BUT THE MOST amazing thing about the alleged strangling is that it might not matter—or, at least, might not matter very much. Fortunately for Sherwood, sleaze isn’t playing nearly as big in this election as was expected. In recent polls, voters rank “ethics in Washington” or “corruption in Washington” at the very bottom of the list of factors influencing their November decision. Some at the fair even seem to expect a mishap like a strangling to befall anyone who sets foot in Washington. “Oh, that?” says Marlene Fuhr, a lively blonde dressed in pink from head to toe, when I ask her about the alleged strangling. “He misbehaved in Washington, but they all do!”

Unfortunately for Sherwood, the issues are playing well. When asked about the allegations, one registered Republican who worked with Sherwood on the school board responds, “Yes, I was surprised, and disappointed. ... [But] my greater disappointment with Don is the nearly visible puppet strings to the Bush administration.” And, at the fair, outside a pink-and-white striped funnel cake stand, Bradford Barnes, a born-again Christian conservative from nearby Mehoopany, says, “I told Donnie, ‘I was kind of mad at you.’”

“Because of the affair?”

“I’m mad that we’ve still got illegal immigration,” he replies. In any other race, Sherwood’s scandal would likely be the central joke. In this unusual year, it’s better to be an alleged strangler than a Bush puppet.

Staying down at the horsepull may be the best way for Sherwood to believe he’s still in Donnie Country. During the ten minutes I spend at the GOP booth, only one person comes over to request Sherwood paraphernalia: an eager, mischievous-looking little boy who wants campaign balloons. As a staffer bends to inflate them, I look at the kid more closely. It is Chris Carney’s son.

This article originally ran in the October 2, 2006 issue of the magazine.