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- October 12, 1987
- Vol. 28
- No. 15
Fed Up with the Demands of Her Husband's Career, a Congressman's Wife Drops Out of the Race
The head of her own Washington-based public relations firm, Pamela, 36, found her business collapsing last November—the result, she says, of spending too little time at the office in order to help her husband tend to the needs of his district. Even so, she felt, they had too little time they could call their own, and too little as well for her daughters from her first marriage, Whitney, 13, and Amy, 12.
Now the Kostmayers have set off down separate paths. Peter, 41, in his fifth term in Congress, has moved into a Washington condo, while Pamela and her daughters remain in their split-level Alexandria, Va., home. She spoke with correspondent Annette Kornblum about the conflicts and constraints of being a political wife.
I blame our problems on a classic case of role overload, my trying to be too many other people—a business executive, a spouse, a mother—in addition to being a congressional wife. Women have advanced, but the public still does not view the congressional wife as separate and apart from her husband. Some women can make their marriages work, but being a political wife held me back from doing what I wanted. I needed to succeed in my own right and have my own identity.
From the start it was a struggle for Peter and me to find time for a relationship. We met on a blind date in 1978, six months after my first marriage had broken up. I was 27 and Peter was 32. Even then Peter had little time to socialize because as a freshman member of Congress he worked night and day. Although he is a Democrat from a Republican district, Peter won by a pretty big margin in 1978, but in 1980 he lost his seat in the Reagan landslide. Suddenly this man who had had such a hectic schedule had time on his hands and began showing up at my doorstep almost every night for dinner. We finally had a chance to get to know each other, to take vacations together and do all the things couples do.
Peter decided to run again in 1982, the same year we became engaged. We never discussed the problems we might have. I don't think you ever get married and foresee lots of problems. We campaigned jointly in the evenings because that was the only time we could be together. During the day I campaigned alone so that Peter and I could cover twice as much territory. I was working for a Washington public relations firm at the time, but I took off Thursdays and Fridays and then the 41 days before the election. It taught me a lot about myself—that I'm very competitive, that I like winning and that I've got incredible stamina. I shook 27,000 hands; my driver kept a tally. The underside of your arm feels as though someone put it through a wringer. It's a physical and emotional test like I'd never experienced before. I enjoyed the challenge of it.
But the first campaign was a lot more fun than the fourth. Over the years I've been spit at, I've had the door slammed in my face, and I've been poked in the arm by a very big, very angry, unemployed steelworker saying, "I wouldn't vote for that Kostmayer. He's going to marry that Jew." I'm not Jewish, but my first husband was, and my children go by his name. Then there was the matter of my Mercedes. I took out a loan and bought the car used before I met Peter, in part to establish credit on my own after my divorce from my first husband. Peter took a lot of heat from members of the steel-workers' union who demanded that I sell it because it was foreign made.
Being in the public eye, you're constantly having to think about how what you're doing will look on the front page of the newspaper back home. On election eve in 1986, for example, Peter was invited to speak to a group of elderly women in Quakertown [Pa.], all Republican. I pinch-hit for him. I was tired and grumpy, and I knew they probably wouldn't vote for Peter anyway, so I said, "I know you're going to vote for Reagan. We all know he's going to win. All I'm saying is split your ticket and vote for Peter. Let's have a little balance in Washington." The next day headlines in both local papers said, "Mrs. Kostmayer Predicts Reagan Landslide; Urges Ticket-Splitting." Peter said not to worry, but I was numb, thinking I had cost him the election.
The kids were affected too. They went to a soccer game in the district once wearing their favorite jeans with the holes in them. A man came up to Whitney and said, "Tell your mommy and daddy that with all that money we're paying them [$72,500 a year], they can buy you a pair of jeans without holes."
For two straight years after Peter and I married, the girls and I drove up to the district every weekend. As a result they couldn't go to a lot of class parties or be in school plays because the rehearsals would take place on the weekends. The moment we arrived in Bucks County, a car would be waiting for me to join Peter at two or three dinners. Then there would be functions to attend all weekend. Sunday nights I insisted we have a family dinner. It was the only real time we had alone.
The girls' schoolwork suffered because I spent so much time accompanying Peter to assorted functions. Plus, around election time I would come home exhausted from campaigning and just not like their behavior. They tended to pull pranks, clearly showing their need for more attention. It would take two months after an election to calm things down and get everyone back to a routine.
Finally, two years ago, I decided to start my own business. I had been working at a public relations firm in Washington, but near the end of the 1984 campaign there was an office shake-up and I resigned. I looked for other positions and was turned down by every other major company in part because, as a political wife, working on an account involving a foreign country or issues appearing before your husband's committees would be considered a conflict of interest by his constituents. By April I was dipping into my savings because Peter's salary was not sufficient to support me, the children and two mortgages. I started the business after Levi Strauss handed me my first account.
By working for myself I thought I would have more control over my life. Instead the strains just became too much. The last time I campaigned, in 1986, I almost went out of business. For two months I didn't do anything but work for Peter. Business slipped. I could barely meet my payroll and was forced to lay off two people. That's when I decided my focus was going to be on my work and my children. I told Peter I wouldn't go up to the district for six months or attend events here in Washington. You go to these things, and no one really cares about you. They just want a pretty little congressional wife there. In my work I'm treated like an equal by men, but at these functions all they would say is, "Oh, the children must be big now." People would shake my hand when they were introduced and not let go because they would be so busy looking at Peter. After the first 60 or so times that happened, I wouldn't let go of their hands until they made eye contact with me. Then they would get the hint. It was my tiny way of striking back.
At first Peter said he understood my feelings; he realized I had given a lot. But I could feel his resentment. He continued to pressure me to come up to the district with him, but I wouldn't go. The tension between us grew so great that we decided to separate.
I'm not negative about what I've been through. I've lost my marriage and I feel regretful, yet I also feel relieved. I believe everything happens for a reason. I'm a better business person, I'm a more conscientious mother, and I'm more confident in who and what I am.
- Annette Kornblum.
January 31, 2015
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