NEARLY 19 YEARS AGO, BEFORE HE BECAME governor of Rhode Island, Bruce Sundlun fathered a child out of wedlock. Last fall he met his daughter, Kara Hewes, for the first time. It was not a Hallmark moment. According to Hewes, whom Sundlun had down to Providence from her home in West Bloomfield, Mich., the two sat on opposite ends of a sofa in the governor's town house. While she showed him baby pictures and talked about college, he kept one eye on a Washington Redskins football game. Finally, he rose and said, "It's been a pleasure meeting you." Governor Sundlun would later say he regarded the meeting as a success: "She's 17, and I'm 73, but for three hours we got along pretty well, I thought."

He thought wrong. Two weeks ago, Kara announced a paternity suit against Sundlun at a widely covered Michigan press conference. The feisty two-term governor quickly shot back, accusing Kara's mother, Judith Hewes, 48, of manipulating the teenager for her own financial gain. A Providence radio host promptly dubbed the dispute As Rhode Island Turns.

This much the warring parties agree on: In the mid-'70s, Sundlun had an affair with Kara's mother while she was working as a flight attendant for an Ohio-based charter airline that he operated. Kara was conceived in October 1974, three months into Sundlun's third marriage. A recent blood test helped persuade Sundlun to acknowledge Kara as his daughter.

Following his daughter's press conference, Sundlun produced legal documents showing that Judith Hewes had sued him for paternity in 1976. He said a $35,000 settlement of that case barred Judith from any further contact with him, but that she had later threatened him with more paternity suits during his last three election campaigns, a charge she strongly denies. He also claimed that Kara's 1979 adoption by her mother's ex-husband, Robert J. Hewes (they divorced in 1985), had absolved him of any further legal responsibility.

Kara doesn't see it that way. "My mother has supported me my whole life, so he should help out with my college education," she says. "He should want to help his daughter get off on the right foot." An honors graduate of West Bloomfield High School, she plans to attend the University of Michigan this fall with the help of her mother, as well as with outside financial aid and work. When she called Sundlun three months ago about paying her college tuition—about $20,000 for four years—she says he offered her a paltry $1,000 a year, plus $10,000 when he dies. (Sundlun said he made a more generous proposal.) Though Kara says her real wish is to have a relationship with her father, Sundlun thinks—and she acknowledges—that it's no coincidence that she filed suit just one month before she turned 18 and could no longer claim any right to his money.

Rhode Islanders now wonder if their hard-nosed governor, who earned a reputation for toughness when he once tried to stem a fiscal crisis by shutting down dozens of banks, has shot himself in the foot by letting the situation become public. A World War II bomber captain, the Providence native amassed millions as a lawyer, a communications executive and head of a charter airline. The father of three sons from his first marriage, he married his fourth wife, Marjorie, 52, in 1985. She was struck by a car in 1991 and left severely brain-damaged.

If some seem surprised by Sundlun's aloof approach to parenthood, his ex-wives say his career was always a priority. "He wasn't around that much," says his first wife, Madeleine Gimbel. "He was not involved with the children." Adds wife No. 3, Joy Sundlun: "Bruce is Bruce. He was very much a businessman."

And probably still is. On June 16 the governor—perhaps mindful of the effect continuing publicity could have on his political future—negotiated an out-of-court settlement with Kara's lawyer, agreeing to pay her college costs. In return, she said she would drop her lawsuit. The deal showed just how much Kara was her daddy's girl. "She's very strong and determined," says her mother. "I've always taught her if you want something, go out and get it. She's that way."

J.D. PODOLSKY
FANNIE WEINSTEIN in West Bloomfield and THOMAS DUFFY in Providence

  • Contributors:
  • Fannie Weinstein,
  • Thomas Duffy.