RIVERSIDE — It would not have been an easy reelection bid in any case for freshman Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside), who barely made it to Congress two years ago.
But now Calvert's biggest reelection hurdle may be his own indiscretions, which also could pose a problem in surviving even his own party's June primary.
The reason: After months of denying it, Calvert, 40, has admitted having sex in his car one night last November with a woman who police say is a known prostitute.
Initially, Calvert--a member of a prominent Riverside County family--said he was doing nothing wrong with the woman when police saw them together on a Corona street.
Corona police said simply that the congressman was spotted sitting in his car with a female, that there was no criminal activity and that after a few words the congressman drove off.
But the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper went to court to press Corona for release of confidential police reports that had been prepared by officers who were sensitive to the fact that they had a street-level encounter with their local congressman.
The city was ordered to release the report, which indicated that there had been evidence of a sex act under way, and an embarrassed Calvert responded with a prepared statement.
"My conduct that evening was inappropriate," he said--not because it was illegal, but because "it violated the values of the person I strive to be." He admitted that he was caught in "an extremely embarrassing situation."
He said he did not pay for the sex. He said he "panicked and tried to drive away" when the officers confronted him, but "came to my senses" and cooperated with them.
Corona Police Capt. John Dalzell said Calvert was not detained or arrested because "while the officer saw certain things, he didn't see everything necessary to support a finding that a crime was committed." Dalzell said there was no witness to an exchange of money for services, and neither party claimed to be a victim.
Dalzell said Calvert did not try to exert influence to avoid arrest. He said the officer's decision not to pursue the matter "wasn't a close call. He didn't even call for a supervisor."
In his explanation for his conduct that night, Calvert said he had come back from a rough week in Washington and was reeling from his father's suicide a year earlier, as well as his wife's request for a divorce, which had been granted just a few weeks before.
"I was feeling intensely lonely," he said. "I realize now that this, or a similar incident, was probably inevitable."
Calvert, who worked in commercial real estate before his election to Congress in 1992, was expected to coast to his party's nomination this year to represent western Riverside County in Washington. His opponent in the primary, conservative Joe Khoury, 47, a professor of finance at UC Riverside, ran second behind Calvert in the primary two years ago but thinks he can prevail this time.
"I thought he was vulnerable, even before this incident," Khoury said. "Riverside is conservative, and voters' reaction to this is not pleasant. It plays differently here than it would in, say, Los Angeles."
Calvert's campaign manager, Ed Slevin, agreed that Calvert will have his hands full winning the primary because of the Corona incident. "I assume he's more vulnerable in June among conservative Republicans than he'll be in November," he said. "I think that, by then, it'll be considered old news."
If Calvert wins the primary, his Democratic challenger is expected to be Mark Takano, a high school history and English teacher and trustee of the Riverside Community College District. Takano lost to Calvert by a little more than 500 votes in 1992, and is expected to handily win his party's nomination in June against a single challenger.
Takano scolded Calvert for not coming clean earlier about the Corona incident. "Mr. Calvert has only himself to blame for his becoming a bigger issue than putting people back to work, fighting crime and improving our schools," Takano said.
Democratic Party strategists said that, even before Calvert's encounter with the woman in Corona, the 43rd Congressional District seat had been targeted for turnover because of what they characterized as Calvert's lackluster performance in Washington during his first stint there and his vulnerability back home.