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THE NATION | THE ROOTS OF A SCANDAL

Condit: From Success to Scandal

Profile: Years before his affair with missing intern Chandra Levy became public, the ambitious politician was the subject of rumors.

July 16, 2001|MARK ARAX and STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Years later, Burl, who was always bigger and a little tougher, would recall in a local newspaper article the time Gary bailed him out of a fight, taking on an older kid behind the Flying-A service station and whipping him "pretty good."

Gary spent a summer working as an oil field roustabout, earning enough cash to buy a 1964 Chevy Impala that landed him in trouble. Court records show that in one year alone a "Gary Adrian Condit" was ticketed three times in Tulsa: once for speeding through town; once for running a stop sign and once for driving without a license. In each instance, he failed to appear in court and authorities had to issue an arrest warrant.

At Nathan Hale High, Condit met Carolyn Berry, a blond pep girl who wore cardigans and had the same toothy grin. Sometime during their senior year, she became pregnant and the young couple drove to the outskirts of Oklahoma, past old Cherokee country, to get married in a county where it took only 15 minutes and a blood test to tie the knot. Back then, males in Oklahoma had to be 21 and females 18 to get married. Instead of inflating his age by three years on the form, Condit fudged it by seven, records show, stating that he was 25.

That summer, their son, Chad, was born, and they moved to California to join Rev. Condit, who was already preaching at a Baptist Church in Ceres. Gary canned tomatoes and sold paint at a Montgomery Ward store, and hadn't even graduated from Cal State Stanislaus when he decided to run for local office. He won his first race at age 23 and, two years later, became one of the youngest mayors in the state.

Rusty Areias was living on his family dairy in Los Banos when he began tracking Condit's rise from city council to board of supervisors. In 1982, after both men won election to the state Assembly representing adjacent districts, they met at a cattle call of freshman legislators in San Francisco.

"These business leaders were having a beauty contest of sorts and here we were trotted out to explain our pro-business agendas," recalled Areias, now the head of state parks and recreation. "Gary struck me right off as a good listener, quiet and reserved, but also a lot of fun.

"We became the best of friends. He didn't wear his religion on his sleeve but every so often, if there was a difficult dilemma, he'd say, 'I need to pray about that.' You couldn't tell if it was tongue in cheek or if he really went home and prayed about it."

Later, when Areias and his father lost their 6,000-acre dairy to bankruptcy, Condit was one of the few friends to stand beside him. "The guy came through for me in my toughest times. He'd call and say, 'Rusty, this will pass, too, and everything will be all right again. Just stick with it.' "

Their friendship had been forged during the Gang of Five days when Condit and Areias, believing that Willie Brown's agenda was leaning too far to the left, teamed up with three like-minded assemblymen from Southern California: Steve Peace, Jerry Eaves and Charles Calderon. They took a trip to Mexico and hatched a plan to use their bloc of votes to join with Republicans on certain issues and thwart the Assembly speaker.

The tall, dark Areias, who wasn't married at the time and drove a Porsche and even managed to outdress Speaker Brown, assumed the role of playboy. He and Condit made the rounds from Paragary's to Eilish's, where Sammy Davis Jr., as a favor to Brown, could be found singing a cappella with only the jukebox as accompaniment.

"It was a small town at the heart and all of a sudden we were the big fish," Areias said. "Everyone wanted to share in that glow."

Pamela Joan Whittingham, a 22-year-old part-time college student with dyed yellow hair and high-top canvas tennis shoes, was one of those drawn to the light of Condit and his pals. She was drinking with friends at Frank Fat's restaurant when she introduced herself as "P.J." to Condit and Brown, and they began trading one-liners rapid-fire. The pols couldn't keep up.

"They thought I was crazy and entertaining, and I'm sure I was," said Whittingham, now a wife and mother who goes by her married name, Harper. "I know I wasn't very astute politically."

Condit found her such a delightful spirit, friends and former staffers say, that he gave her a job answering constituent mail, and she later managed his office. She accompanied Condit on overnight trips to Los Angeles, she said, and they went to the racetrack at Santa Anita and flirted over dinner. Their relationship became such a source of gossip that nearly 20 years later, in the midst of the Levy scandal, people still mention her name as one of Condit's former lovers. It never happened, she said.

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