Adviser exhibits loyalty to Ensign though dragged into scandal

It’s been about a decade since Nevada campaign strategist Pete Ernaut first took up the political cause of John Ensign.

Ensign was a consummately coiffed Republican rising star who surfed into Congress after the 1994 election on the GOP’s Contract With America wave and nearly knocked Harry Reid out of his Senate seat in 1998.

In those days, a conversation with Ensign rarely omitted talk of his conservative values, family and relationship with God. God and Newt Gingrich, mostly in that order.

Following the retirement of popular Sen. Richard Bryan, Ensign emerged from the 2000 Senate race against personal injury attorney Ed Bernstein with nary a hair out of place. It was more a coronation than a campaign, and in keeping with his duties as campaign chairman, the pugnacious Ernaut helped protect Ensign’s political interests at every turn.

Surrounded by loyal friends, Ernaut and campaign operative Mike Slanker among them, Ensign needed even less help in overcoming Democrat Jack Carter in 2006. Ensign, it seemed, had become close to bulletproof, and he even showed signs of increasing his clout in the national party.

All that time Ernaut helped his friend and watched as Ensign approached the pinnacle of America’s political power structure.

In the past year, of course, Ernaut has also watched Ensign tumble from grace amid a sex scandal.

As The New York Times has reported, e-mail evidence appears to show Ensign might have violated ethics rules and federal law when he attempted to gain employment and consulting work on behalf of Doug Hampton, a family friend and former member of his Senate staff. Ensign had been having an affair with Hampton’s wife, Cindy, who also had worked on the senator’s campaign and was close friends with his wife, Darlene.

The Senate Ethics Committee and Department of Justice are looking into potential violations of Senate rules. The FBI is busy interviewing Ensign’s friends, former staffers and some of the businessmen whom Ensign is suspected of attempting to contact — or was it strong-arm? — on Hampton’s behalf.

Ernaut recently received a document subpoena from the ethics panel. Friends or not, Ernaut feels mighty uncomfortable having his name associated even tangentially with the Ensign scandal.

“I’ve worked very hard over the last 20 plus years in a profession where it’s very difficult to stay with your name aboveboard and have a good, solid ethical reputation,” Ernaut said. “Yeah, it is frustrating and hurts to see your name dragged into it, especially when you weren’t involved in any of the alleged improprieties.”

No one can blame Ernaut for attempting to distance himself from Ensign. But that’s not really what Ernaut is doing. At a moment he would have been justified in minimizing his relationship with Ensign, who politically speaking is more radioactive than the Nevada Test Site these days, Ernaut defended the fallen man.

“As you might imagine, this is a deeply personal thing for me, too,” Ernaut said, noting he considers himself friends with Ensign and Doug Hampton. “I know all the people involved. … John Ensign is my friend in and out of politics. We’ve spent a lot of time together. I’ve found him to be very engaging in politics and just about every walk of life. It’s a heartbreaking situation and just sad for both their families.”

Sad, sure. But what if it turns out not to be felonious?

Should Ensign somehow survive multiple investigations, could he make a comeback?

You know, something like, “John Ensign: The Redemption Tour.”

“I guess anything’s possible,” Ernaut said, without a hint of his trademark pugnacity.

Politics is a cynical business, but I decided not to ask Ernaut whether he would help his old friend should the day of that comeback ever arrive.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at

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