INDIANAPOLIS -- As he suffers through a disastrous year in Washington, Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, is facing the ultimate in the politics of disrespect here at home: Democrats have chosen a convicted felon and occasional female impersonator to challenge the flamboyant Republican incumbent.
"I impersonated a judge years ago because I idolized her," the Democrat, Bobby Kern, explained with a big grin the other day on WTHR television as his party leaders winced at his presence on the ballot.
Democratic leaders are seeking to dislodge the nominee, formerly known as Bobby Hidalgo, as a duplicitous fluke who took the surname "Kern" before the May 5 primary to fool the voters and get the prized top ballot spot in an anemic 14 percent voter turnout.
But Jocelyn-Tandy Adande, Kern's campaign manager and herself a name-changing perennial insurgent candidate, is crowing at the result, predicting, "Bobby's election to the House will drive standards no lower than what they've already reached."
There is bipartisan concession that the heavily Republican district will not reject Burton, mocked as he may be for such capers as his backyard pot-shooting at melons in an attempt at proving his theories that a White House homicide conspiracy was behind the suicide of Vincent W. Foster Jr., a Clinton family confidant.
Still, there is an eerie civic discomfort here as Kern laughingly goes about warning, "Watch out, Dan Burton! Here I come!" And the slowly dawning news that state law bars former felons from all state offices but not service in Congress is producing a kind of post-primary tristesse that is revealing about the hometown politics of Washington power.
Winning the name game
"Burton's been fouling up so bad that we could have raised some money with a respectable candidate," declared Allan Rachles, Democratic leader for the 6th District.
He rued Kern's upset victory over the Democratic Party's choice, R. "Nag" Nagarajan and said, "Nag is a fine candidate but his name conjures up some Middle East monster for voters, I guess."
This indelicate point, that the name Bobby Kern has Midwestern meter and all-American luster worthy of Larry Bird, the Indiana basketball legend, is being sadly cited by party officials in their postmortems.
"Nagarajan is not a Hoosier-sounding name," said Mike Harmless, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "People voted for the first person on the ballot and Bobby Hidalgo had put his name down as Kern. We challenged that before the election, but the Republicans on the election commission chose to let it stand."
Kern's manager, Adande, who changed her own name while running unsuccessfully for office, said that the state law clearly allows candidates the use of nicknames or other familiar references on the ballot without having to legally rename themselves. Kern was the name of the grandparents who raised Hidalgo, she said.
"You could call yourself Dick Tracy out here and run for office," she added, noting that her own new name, Torkwase Adande, is Nigerian for Challenger Queen, in summary of her long, antic career as a political outsider.
Impersonated a judge
Biographical details on the people's choice were finally reported at length May 17 on the front page of the Indianapolis Star in a story about Kern that began, "He's impersonated a female judge and dressed in drag."
Democratic Party leaders are furious that while the press is relishing the odd details of the life of Kern, there was little reporting before the primary about the 34-year-old former gas station attendant. He served a year in prison a decade ago for forgery and theft as Hidalgo, having generously enlarged the amount of his paycheck.
Kern has confirmed that he regularly impersonated a local female judge on the phone. "Did they tell you why I cross-dressed?" he asked in the WTHR interview, insisting he did so once in an undercover drug investigation.
Police authorities deny that this was the case.
Some local residents despair at the choice between Kern, as the idiosyncratic insurgent, or Burton, as the entrenched incumbent whose campaign finance investigation in Washington has run into problems of chronic ineptitude and his own vulgar judgment on President Clinton.
Some resort to satire, with Steve Hammer, music columnist for the alternative weekly NUVO, announcing that he would run as an independent. "I can combine the most bizarre qualities of the two other candidates," Hammer contended.
The editor of NUVO, Harrison Ullmann, a former State House correspondent for the Star, said the state of Indiana's election law is no laughing matter.
"It's an awful thing," he said, complaining that the complex law was tailored by politicians to protect incumbents like Burton and leave the opposition party atrophied and vulnerable to fringe candidates.
VTC This year, Ullmann said, 125 seats are to be filled in the state Legislature, but 58 of them are already decided for lack of opposition. Seven seats in the House of Representatives also have no opposition.
While insisting that Kern is a viable candidate, Adande is not now allowing him to be interviewed. The record of Burton, not Kern, deserves all this post-primary vetting, she said.
"We're going door-to-door through his district," she promised, delighted to play co-gadfly with the renamed Hidalgo all the way to November.
Burton, while attempting to recover from his own mishaps in Washington, has not said a word about the Democrats' primary imbroglio.
State Democrats continue to fight Kern as an impostor on their ballot line, with an appeal to the state Recount Board.
"Next thing you know," said Harmless, the party director, "we'll have 'Thomas Jefferson' running in Indiana."
Pub Date: 5/24/98