Cheating Men Get a Second Life in Politics, Cheating Women Get…
On December 15, 2011, four male Minnesota state senators called a press conference. Its purpose was to issue a moral rebuke to a woman who wasn’t there, over an extramarital affair she’d had with a colleague. In the ensuing weeks, the four men would force the woman, the state’s first ever female majority leader, to move to an office far from theirs, on a different floor. Nobody would move into her vacant office before the end of the term, after which the woman would pack her things and leave the home she had shared with her husband of 18 years to move back in with her parents. Weeks later, the woman’s 64-year-old mother would die of breast cancer, only four months after her diagnosis.
Amy Koch still feels the echoes of the day of that press conference in her life. “People called it ‘The Scarlet Letter award ceremony,’” she tells The Daily Beast. “I didn’t watch it. I’ll never watch it.”
That was the day that news of Koch’s affair with a male senate staffer went public, that her colleagues turned on her, that Koch resigned from her leadership position among state senate Republicans and announced she wouldn’t seek reelection. The damage to her life and career felt complete, the shame all-consuming.
As a person, Amy Koch is strikingly likeable, sharp, warm, and thoughtful, even after what she now refers to as “the ordeal.” But for liberals in Minnesota circa 2011, Koch represented something much less endearing. For them, her scandal was a cocktail of poetic justice and schadenfreude. The marriage equality fight raged red-hot that Minnesota midwinter, and, Koch, an outspoken and brash conservative woman with an easy one-of-the-dudes laugh, had been instrumental in pushing for a state constitutional amendment barring legal same-sex unions. After the news of her own marital catastrophe upended the Minnesota statehouse, one gay activist wrote a cheeky letter to Koch, apologizing on behalf of gay people everywhere for ruining her marriage. The letter went viral. Liberal cable news had a lot of fun with the affair. Opinion pages of the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press were littered with morally superior missives against Koch. Any statement she made to the media was met with sneering, with moral judgement, with condemnation.
Amy Koch did a lot of reading as the scandal broke. She read the letters to the editor. She also read the comments. “Never read the comments,” she says.
She also read stories of other political sex scandals, searching for a blueprint of what her life would look like moving forward. “I wanted to know who survives this who doesn’t survive this. How do they approach things? Why does one person come back and another person doesn’t? And one thing I noticed, I didn’t really find any stories about women politicians…. There’re women on the other end of these scandals but there’s not one where it’s a woman politician. None that I found.”
Bereft of role models, she set out on her own path. “After my term was over, I disappeared,” she says. It took her months before she felt like she could return to church. Newspaper articles that mentioned the implosion of her career would give her a fresh wave of humiliation. She was positive that friends and neighbours who were supportive or kind to her were faking it, because everybody on the internet was so full of vitriol. At the end of the year, she used some of the money she got from the sale of her and her now-ex husband’s business during their divorce and bought a bowling alley and bar in Maple Lake, Minnesota, about a 15-minute drive from her hometown of Buffalo.
“I’ve thought a lot about it and I’ve had a lot of people—women and men—say to me it wouldn’t have happened to me if I were a man,” she says. “But I’m not sure if what happened to me happened because I’m a woman.”