Politics 2004Week of October 4

Jerry and Zury

“Love gives not but itself, and takes not from itself. Love possesses not, nor would it be possessed; for love is sufficient unto love.”

Khalil Ghibran might have been onto something when he wrote those moving words. But in the case of Rep. Jerry Weller (R.-Ill.), pols and pundits wonder, is love sufficient politically for a lawmaker engaged to the daughter of one of the most notorious of Latin America’s former caudillos (strongmen).

Five-termer Weller stunned constituents in the 11th District (Will County) and colleagues in Washington this summer when he announced his engagement to Zury Rios Sosa, majority leader of the Guatemalan Congress. Besides the rarity and historic significance of a marriage between two elected lawmakers from different countries, Zury is the daughter of one of the most controversial Guatemalans: 77-year-old Gen. Efrain Rios-Montt, whose 18 months as the military-installed president in 1982-83 are still the subject of charges he presided over widespread massacres in the Mayan Indian community. Opponents of the former president (including his brother, Roman Catholic Bishop Mario Rios-Montt) have long demanded his prosecution for “crimes against humanity.”

When Efrain Rios-Montt sought to return to the presidency through the ballot box earlier this year, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters that “. . in light of Mr. Rios-Montt’s background, it would be difficult to have the kind of relationship we prefer” with Guatemala if he were elected. In a three-candidate race, the man known as “El General” came in last with 18.4% of the vote. Because he relinquished his seat in the Guatemalan Congress to make the race and thereby gave up immunity from prosecution, Rios-Montt could easily be indicted and tried for alleged atrocities of more than 20 years ago.

Whatever Rios-Montt’s future, his soon-to-be son-in-law is now feeling political heat from his Democratic opponent over his upcoming marriage, which is planned for after the November elections. On the stump, in mailings, and on his campaign website, McLean County Board member Tari Renner cites UN reports charging the elder Rios-Montt with genocide and attacks Weller as “unwilling to denounce this brutality”. Renner demands that Weller (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 86%) resign from the House International Relations Committee.

Even if the charges against Rios-Montt are true, reply Weller supporters, that is his problem, and daughter Zury has nothing to do with them. Renner, however, disagrees and points out that Zury was formerly press secretary to her father’s Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) Party and that, in the last presidential campaign, she delivered numerous speeches at his side defending him from charges of genocide.

Love, Guatemalan Style

For 47-year-old Jerry Weller, Aug. 3, 2003, is a date he will never forget. That was the day when, while on an International Relations Committee trip to Guatemala City, he and fellow Rep. Cass Ballenger (R.-N.C.) attended a cocktail party for U.S. and Guatemalan officials at the American Embassy.

“[Ambassador] John Hamilton asked if Cass and I wanted to meet the majority leader of the Guatemalan Congress,” Weller told me in an interview shortly before Congress reconvened last month, “I was expecting someone like [U.S. House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R.-Tex.]. So, when I found myself shaking hands with this beautiful young woman, I said to myself ‘Wow!’ That was Zury.”

The two lawmakers from different countries “hit it off immediately,” says Weller, and quickly began a 21st Century-style long-distance romance through e-mail exchanges and cell-phone calls. The Illinoisan, who owns property in Panama, admitted to me that he doesn’t speak Spanish, “but I’m learning quickly.” He added that Zury “speaks better English than you or me, and she is also fluent in French and Italian.” The congressman laughed while telling me that the future Mrs. Weller, a magna cum laude graduate of the University of Guatemala, “is also smarter and better-looking than either of us.” An educator by trade, Zury has been elected three times by landslide margins and specializes in health care and senior citizens’ issues.

After a few jet hops back and forth between their homes, Weller and Zury became engaged in July. Since this will be the second marriage for both, Weller explained, he did not feel the necessity of asking her father for Zury’s hand.

“My parents met her here in Illinois and they loved her,” said Weller. Asked about the reaction of his supporters in the 11th District, he said they learned of their congressman’s engagement and met his fianc???? ©e when he invited them to a “special event” at the Morris (Ill.) Country Club and featuring “a special guest.”

As for the blasts from opponent Renner, Weller dismissed them as “vicious political attacks from a left-wing college professor.” In Weller’s words, “my opponent can say what he wants and make up what he wants. No one has ever won an election by attacking an opponent’s spouse.” Nonetheless, even on Rios-Montt, himself, As with most controversial politicians, there are differing opinions. His supporters point out that in Guatemala’s civil war from 1960-96, more than 200,000 citizens were killed, that the blood of genocide is more on the hands of leftist guerillas than on those of the strongman-presidents such as Rios-Montt who fought them. When they were Presidents of their respective countries, Ronald Reagan dismissed the charges of atrocities in Rios-Montt’s Guatemala as “a bum rap.”

For his part, Jerry Weller has no public comment about Rios-Montt or what he may or may not be guilty of. When I wondered if he has ever asked his future father-in-law whether he committed atrocities, the congressman deadpanned: “No, he doesn’t speak English.”

But Weller does grow passionate when it comes to attacks on his intended. As he told me, “Zury loves her parents and supports her father. I would think no less of her than I would of Chelsea Clinton’s standing by her father.”

Addendum: Between the announcement of Rep. Weller’s engagement to Congresswoman Rios and our interview, Weller press secretary Telly Lovelace asked me to find out if there is any precedent of an American member of Congress’s marrying a member of the congress of another country. As best I could find out I told him, there has been no situation like Weller’s. But I did note that there was another case of a congressman’s marrying the daughter of a foreign elected official: Rep. (1944-70) Adam Clayton Powell (D.-N.Y.) in 1960 married Yvette Flores, whose father had been mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Lovelace confirmed that his own research had come up with only the same, somewhat similar case. But when I double-checked with Adam Clayton Powell, III, eldest son of the late Harlem congressman and now a professor at the University of Southern California and Washington, D.C., (Channel 32) TV commentator, he said the analogy with his father is flawed, because Puerto Rico is part of the United States, so his father did not marry a foreign citizen. (Weller for Congress, P.O. Box 2368, Joliet, Ill. 60434)

After Shrock

Although Republicans in Virginia’s 2nd District are still reeling from the surprise retirement in August of two-term Rep. Ed Schrock, they are moving on. A swiftly called meeting of a12-member committee of party leaders in the Virginia Beach district selected conservative State Delegate Thelma Drake over two other Republicans as their new standard-bearer. A real estate broker and five-term state legislator, Drake won high marks from conservatives for her spirited opposition to tax increases backed by Democratic Gov. Mark Warner.

In a district that George W. Bush won with 55% of the vote four years ago, Drake is the favorite over Democrat David Ashe, a lawyer and U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Iraqi conflict. But local Republicans are still shell-shocked by the circumstances of Schrock’s departure. Headed to easy election to a third term, Vietnam veteran and stalwart conservative Schrock was charged on a gay activist’s website with using a dating service to meet men. Schrock, married and a father, chose to leave Congress rather than subject his family to further highly personal attacks.