Divorce Records Haunt Ohio Democrat

Renewed interest in charges of spousal abuse could sink Charlie Wilson as he fights to retake House seat

Charlie Wilson / AP
September 17, 2012

A history of admitted spousal abuse could undermine an Ohio Democratic congressional candidate’s effort to retake the seat he lost in 2010.

Charlie Wilson, a former two-term congressman, is running against incumbent Rep. Bill Johnson (R., Ohio), the freshman who ousted him two years ago.

Wilson, who had previously served in the Ohio state government since 1996, has largely avoided a critical examination of his 1990 divorce records, in which his now ex-wife Clara accused him of "extreme cruelty" and "terroristic" behavior.

According to a Nov. 9, 1990, trial brief obtained by the Washington Free Beacon, Clara Wilson filed for divorce on the ground of "extreme cruelty" by her husband. The couple had been married for 27 years at the time, and had four adult children.

Though Charlie Wilson contested the "extreme cruelty" charge, the trial brief noted that he did admit to a series of specific allegations of abuse.

"Charles admits that early in the marriage he kicked and struck [Mrs. Wilson] and accused her of adultery," the brief reads. Mrs. Wilson is subsequently described as "the typical battered wife."

Much of the brief focuses on a specific incident that took place on Sept. 14, 1989, after Mrs. Wilson refused to resign her post on the board of the American Heart Association per her husband’s "demands."

"Charles’ anger arose at his wife’s daring to oppose his demands," the brief reads. "He jumped out of his chair and grabbed her about the neck as he slammed her into the refrigerator. He then grabbed her about both arms, shaking her as they both went over to the kitchen counter which struck Mrs. Wilson with enough force to take the breath out of her."

Mr. Wilson, according to the brief, admitted "grabbing [Mrs. Wilson] by the arms and shaking her … grabbing her around the neck with one hand … [and] bruising [her] arms and neck."

Her son took Mrs. Wilson to a local hospital, where she eventually acknowledged the assault after initially lying about it, the brief reveals.

Mr. Wilson left home for seven weeks after the incident, before returning to propose reconciliation. The effort failed. Mrs. Wilson filed for divorce on May 15, 1990.

Mr. Wilson is currently single.

National Review reporter Jim Geraghty noted in 2010 that details of the case were largely absent from local media outlets’ coverage of the Wilson-Johnson race. The story seems to be gaining more traction this time around, however. The Marietta Times recently published a letter to the editor complaining about the lack of coverage.

"Maybe I am wrong, but I don't remember reading anything about Wilson's divorce from ex-wife Clara on the grounds of ‘extreme cruelty,’" wrote Richard Vore. "Maybe he has reformed since the series of violent incidents with his ex-wife. If he has, great. But I bring this up now because it’s clear the media (so willing to go into the private lives of Republicans) has failed to do its job."

Mr. Wilson’s fellow Democrat President Obama is something of a pioneer in the practice of using his opponent’s unsealed divorce records for political advantage.

Trailing his 2004 Democratic primary opponent Blair Hull just one month before the election, the Obama campaign "worked aggressively behind the scenes to push [a] story" based on Hull’s 1998 sealed divorce records, the controversial details of which were mysteriously leaked to a Chicago Tribune reporter.

Obama’s campaign adviser at the time David Axelrod (who is currently a senior adviser to his reelection campaign) was a former political writer for the Tribune, and is thought to have played a significant role in making the divorce records public.

Obama went on to win the Democratic primary, and initially faced Republican Jack Ryan in the general election. Ryan was leading the race until, at the request of the Chicago Tribune, a California judge unsealed portions of Ryan’s five-year-old divorce records, which contained allegations that Ryan had taken his ex-wife to "sex clubs" on several occasions, allegations that Ryan denied.

Ryan dropped out of the race just four days later, and Obama sailed to victory against replacement GOP candidate Alan Keyes.