Congressional candidate Dick Rutan suffered a painful setback Friday when his former girlfriend and co-pilot on his historic, around-the-world Voyager flight defected and endorsed his rival in the San Bernardino County race, Democratic Rep. George E. Brown Jr.
Shortly before the June primary, Jeana Yeager signed a letter backing Rutan's candidacy and calling her onetime partner "a proud American who wants to build a better Congress." Rutan featured the letter, along with a photograph of himself and Yeager, in his campaign literature.
But in a statement released by Brown's office Friday, Yeager declared that it would be "rash and foolhardy" for voters to swap the veteran congressman for Rutan, whom she described as a man with "no political experience . . . and no political track record."
"I urge the people of San Bernardino County to give George Brown their full support in this race which so clearly pits the known and proven against the unknown promises of an amateur," Yeager wrote.
In a telephone interview, Yeager said Rutan "would be the wrong choice for Congress" because he "makes promises he doesn't fulfill" and has reneged on several business agreements the two have had in the years since their landmark Voyager flight.
Asked why she initially gave Rutan her support, Yeager said she was "hasty in allowing my name to be used" and did so without realizing he would face Brown if he won the Republican primary.
"I'm afraid I'm not very politically involved," said Yeager, who lives in Bellingham, Wash. "When I found out he was now running against George Brown, I decided the best thing for the people would be for me to come forward."
Rutan, 53, could not be reached for comment. Aides said he was en route to a Voyager reunion in Eureka, an event Yeager said she would attend.
In a statement, Rutan was described by aides as "shocked and saddened" by Yeager's decision, which he will discuss at a news conference Monday.
Brown, meanwhile, declared himself "deeply honored" by Yeager's support: "The fact that the one person who knows Dick Rutan best--the woman who flew around the world with him--should choose to recognize and endorse my achievements, gives me great encouragement," said the 72-year-old Colton Democrat.
Rutan and Yeager, who met at a Chino air show in 1980, shared a romantic relationship that sputtered to an end in 1986--several months before they climbed aboard the Voyager and embarked on their grueling, 26,000-mile expedition.
During the nine-day odyssey, which marked the first time a plane has circumnavigated the globe without stopping to refuel, they endured harrowing storms and other perils while wedged in a cockpit no larger than a telephone booth. The Voyager, a craft designed and built by Rutan's brother, hangs in the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in Washington.
After the flight, the co-pilots wrote a book and took a worldwide speaking tour to raise money to pay off their $500,000 debt. Aside from occasional appearances at Voyager-related events, they have had little contact since.
Rutan, a plain-spoken former Vietnam fighter pilot making his first run for office, is viewed as the Republicans' best hope yet of toppling Brown, a liberal stalwart who is seeking his 15th term in Congress. Redistricting has made Brown more vulnerable than ever, and Rutan's folk hero appeal has given the GOP hope for a win.
A recent poll released by the Rutan campaign showed Brown leading the aviator by 7 percentage points. But still to come for Rutan are high-profile endorsement appearances by former Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and former President Gerald R. Ford.
Yeager, 40, has met Brown several times and said she values his "deep commitment to space and science issues." Yeager is studying for admission to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's astronaut training program, and Brown has written a letter in support of her candidacy, according to his campaign manager, Bobi Johnson.