Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Mark Kirk’s Ex-wife: ‘Svengali Figure’ Influencing Candidate

Her marriage to Rep. Mark Kirk (R-10th Dist.) may have ended amicably in June 2009, and the two may remain friends today, but Kimberly Vertolli said that she will not “advocate” for her ex in his Senate run because she fears he is too influenced by a “Svengali figure” in his life—a former staffer named Dorothy “Dodie” McCracken…

Kimberly Vertolli and Mark Kirk in 2000
In this photo from March 2000, Rep. Mark Kirk celebrates his congressional victory with his then-fiancée Kimberly Vertolli, now his ex-wife.



Her marriage to Rep. Mark Kirk (R-10th Dist.) may have ended amicably in June 2009, and the two may remain friends today, but Kimberly Vertolli said that she will not “advocate” for her ex in his Senate run because she fears he is too influenced by a “Svengali figure” in his life—a former staffer named Dorothy “Dodie” McCracken.

Vertolli, 37, a former naval intelligence officer who was married to Kirk for eight years, told me in a telephone interview last week that she loves him and “want[s] him to be happy,” but she says that McCracken—Kirk’s press secretary during his first term—is “trying to control Mark and the direction of Mark’s campaign.” For example, Vertolli blames McCracken for the congressman’s support of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which bans openly gay people from serving in the military. Vertolli, a lawyer now living in the Virginia suburbs of D.C., added that Kirk assured her, “when the issue came up again, he’s going to do the right thing and support overturning that policy.”

Dodie McCracken, 52, is a former Winnetka resident who now works as consultant in D.C. She heads up a PR firm called Arcadian Partners and is a volunteer consultant to the Kirk campaign. (According to the Arcadian website, McCracken has focused during her career “on work with non-profit organizations, cause-related activities and public service”; examples are the U.S. National Guard and the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.)

I contacted Kirk’s office to ask him to discuss McCracken’s influence on the campaign. Kirsten Kukowski, Kirk’s communications director, promised a response, but it was not received by post time. UPDATE: Dodie McCracken e-mailed me shortly after the post went up. Her response was limited to confirming factual information about her age and role in the Kirk campaign.

Friends of Vertolli and Kirk told me the two remain close, and that Kimberly, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Acade­my at Annapolis and of Northwestern Law, raised money for her ex-husband’s campaign. Vertolli’s admiration for Kirk is obvious. “He really is accomplished, he is very smart, and he does have good intentions for serving and protecting the people who he wishes to serve,” she said. Their union produced no children, but the couple still shares a devotion to a 12-year-old Shih Tzu named Sophie, a birthday gift from Kirk in 1998.

I tracked Vertolli down last week in New Jersey, where she is working as general counsel to a family-run company there. Politically progressive and starkly direct, Vertolli called Kirk’s race against Democrat Alexi Giannoulias “a big part of my life.” She ducked few questions, including rumors that Kirk, a moderate Republican who has represented the North Shore since 2001, is gay. He’s not, she says, elaborating on that, and much more, in this—part one of the edited transcript of our conversation:

CF: Will you be hitting the stump for Mark Kirk in Illinois?
KV: I have always served as Mark’s moral conscience. And as long as he maintains his moral conscience and remembers why he ran [for Congress]—because we decided together to run, I was then his fiancée—I support him.

CF: How has he done so far on exercising that moral conscience on issues?
KV: I’ll give you one solid example. I lobbied him on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign, [an organization that promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, of which Vertolli is a member, donor, and volunteer]. I passionately support their drive to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Mark voted against the Murphy amendment [to repeal DADT, named for Pennsylvania Democrat Patrick Murphy, passed by the House this past May]. Therefore, he voted in favor of maintaining a discriminatory policy against gays and lesbians who are serving us in the military. I privately withdrew my support because to me that’s a basic human right. I will not support a candidate who upholds a policy that discriminates against gays and lesbians.

CF: That’s where you are now?
KV: No. He assured me that when the issue came up again, he’s going to do the right thing and support overturning that policy. He has a very good rating with the Human Rights Campaign. He’s one of the most pro-gay rights Republicans we have.

CF: So at this moment, with that promise, is it your intention to support him and campaign for him?
KV: No, I will not because there’s a person who is a very pernicious force on his team who is wielding a disproportionate amount of negative influence on him. As long as she’s there, I can’t be his moral conscience.

CF: Who is that person?
KV: Her name is Dodie McCracken. She is the only member of Mark’s staff who was not invited to our wedding back in 2001. She acts as this kind of Svengali figure in his life. She had to go away.

CF: Why did she have to go away?
KV: Because Mark could either stay married to me, or she could find another place. But there wasn’t enough room for the two of us to stay in Mark’s life.

CF: Did she come back on the scene after you were divorced?
KV: Unfortunately, she never left. When Mark decided to run for the Senate, she shifted most of her attention [from other clients] to trying to control Mark and the direction of Mark’s campaign.

CF: Is there any kind of insinuation that there’s any kind of romance going on between them?
KV: I will not characterize their relationship.

CF: Is McCracken to the right politically of Kirk?
KV: She is.

CF: If Kirk wins, what would she want to be? His chief of staff?
KV: I think she would like to be able to control the direction of Mark’s politics in any way that she can, whether it’s on his staff or continuing as a consultant. Mark is a good soul. Mark went into politics because he knew that he was smart and had a lot of great ideas. One of the things that we share is the value of protecting Israel as an ally. We share human rights values… to protect people who are vulnerable. If you just follow your party under the flag of Democrat or Republican, inevitably, you sell out the very people that you came there to help. When [Dodie McCracken] advocates that he does things … just to cater to the right wing or to special interest groups, it ultimately hurts Mark because it hurts his credibility.

CF: On which other issues has Mark disappointed you?
KV: Unemployment benefits for the neediest of Americans. That was another recent clash we had. They are not unemployed because they like sitting around eating Ho Ho’s and cashing their huge checks. These people need to put food on the table, and they’re going to spend it on the economy right away. That’s a no brainer. If you have to even think about that, there’s something wrong with your moral compass.

CF: Are you a Democrat?
KV: No, I’m very adamantly not a Democrat, adamantly not a Republican. I’m passionately independent.

CF: Whom did you vote for president in 2008?
KV: I filled in a name. I never voted for George W. Bush. That was a persistent clash between us during our marriage. I have never been in favor of the direction of [Bush] or the direction he wanted to take our country, and I’m an ex-CIA officer, too. I’m very familiar with the way that they used the agency to advance their own agenda.

CF: Do you think that continues in the Obama administration?
KV: No, I really don’t think so. I have a very positive impression of President Obama. I think he’s highly intelligent and has a moral conscience. I think he does the best he can with the economy and with the wars that he has inherited [from] irresponsible, arrogant leaders of the past.

CF: Will you vote for Obama’s re-election in 2012?
KV: Yes, at this point I would.

CF: Was it political differences that contributed to you and Mark divorcing?
KV: I think that if Dodie McCracken had not continued to be in our lives, we probably would still be married.

CF: What about the rumors that Mark Kirk is gay?
KV: That’s been going on since he first ran. It’s highly unusual for a man to have been married to a woman for eight years and not produced children. And it’s unusual for a man to have not been married until he’s 40 years old. [Kirk was 41]. So people get suspicious. It’s human nature. When we don’t understand something, we want to attach an explanation to it. It’s not an accurate explanation that Mark is gay, but nevertheless, that’s how some people choose to reconcile it.

Stayed tuned for part two of my conversation with Vertolli, coming Thursday. In it, she addresses recent news stories that Kirk exaggerated his achievements—everything from his military record to time working in a pre-school classroom—and offers her take on Alexi Giannoulias.


Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo


4 years ago

I certainly agree with her about dadt. No one's human rights should be a legitimate subject of political football.

4 years ago
Posted by PaulMcGrath

This guy's a nut. In the first place, you don't get divorced over a Svengali figure unless there's a romantic connection. But she didn't exactly say he's not gay. Franklin Roosevelt had Louis Howe but Eleanor didn't divorce Franklin.

4 years ago
Posted by Halloween Jack

Wow, talk about "things that make you go 'hmm'". I don't read Vertolli's answer to the question about the rumors as necessarily ruling out that Kirk ever had same-sex affairs. For some people, gay/lesbian = a 6 on the Kinsey scale. It also doesn't exactly explain what sort of a hold this McCracken has over Kirk, exactly.

4 years ago
Posted by RichinAZ

I hope in part two that the FACT that Kirk is NOT a Naval Aviator NOR a Naval Flight Officer will be confirmed. Kirk still permits the Washington Post's site to state that he was a "Navy Pilot", which is totally false.

4 years ago
Posted by Orr

Wow, now that's an interview! I wish it was Vertolli who was running for office instead of Kirk. Svengali figure? Is he a grown man or Britney Spears?

4 years ago
Posted by azjoanna

It sounds like Vertolli is just upset that she's not the "Svengali" in Kirk's life. She sounds like a real controlling woman.

4 years ago
Posted by Moral Compass

If she chooses to provide readers with a balanced account of these circumstances, Ms. Felsenthal should ask Ms. Vertolli to disclose details about (1) the extra-marital affairs that SHE conducted for several years even while her husband remained faithful to her; (2) her extensive history of mental instability, as evidenced by countless inappropriate outbursts in the presence of his supporters, colleagues and staff, and (3) her insistence on using the Congressman's campaign funds for personal expenses. Fortunately, the Congressman and his staff refused to permit any improper use of campaign funds but her continued insistence (steadily refuted) was a steady source of conflict in the marriage. Sadly, those who have been close to Rep. Kirk for many years and support his campaign for Senate have felt that he is surrounded by several staffers, including Ms. McCracken, who should have been dismissed from the campaign many years ago due to her inappropriate conduct both in Washington and on the campaign trail. Perhaps this unfortunate turn of events will provide the Congressman with the wake-up call he needs to remove Ms. McCracken from his sphere of influence once and for all before it is too late to salvage what's left of his political life. He has been an excellent Congressman and would be a gifted Senator, but he must recognize and correct the blind eye he has for sycophants such as Ms. McCracken -- and Ms. Vertolli.

4 years ago
Posted by DianaD

The ex-wife sounds like a nut, plain and simple. And for someone who loves him and wants him to be happy, she has an odd way of showing it.

4 years ago
Posted by H-bomb

I think Vertolli IS saying that Mark Kirk is not gay. The more interesting answer is her unwillingness to comment on his possible romantic involvement with McCracken.

4 years ago
Posted by Pavel Kwiekowski

The time line doesn't seem to match. Ms. Vertoli is 37. She's a USNA grad - probably about age 22. She would have had a minimum 5-year active duty obligation in the Navy (as a Naval/navel? Intel Officer) - takes her to about age 27-28. She attended Northwestern Univ School of Law (normally a 3 year curriculum) which takes her to at least 30-31 years old. She was married to the congressman for 8 years. Just when did the lady have time to fit in her stint as a "CIA Officer."

Ms. Vertoli lobbies for the (Gay)Human Rights Campaign and "passionately" supports repeal of "Don't Ask - Don't Tell." Perhaps Reporter Felsenthal should have asked about Ms. Vertoli's "orientation" when she asked about the congressman's.

4 years ago
Posted by JannyD

Mark Kirk is another Democrat wearing a Republican label. When he started out, I had high hopes, but they were dashed by crap like this. I know NO ONE who is passionate about gay rights, belongs to gay organizations and spends a lifetime on their issues WITHOUT being gay themselves, or the parent of a gay person, etc. I think all three of these people are gay, and, as I have observed in similar situations, they create dramas around themselves because their egos drive everything in their lives. It's all about "me." For someone who claims to love and admire Kirk, she sure did a great hatchet job. Can't wait for Part Deux.

4 years ago
Posted by MisterMike

It sounds like Ms. Vertolli may be a bit of an egotistical nutcase, wounded by the fact that "the other woman" remains a part of Kirk's life. Her smarmy assertion that she's always "served . . . as his moral conscience" suggests that Ms. Vertolli has an excessive amount of regard for her own opinions and is dismissive of anyone who might hold contrary views.

If this interview in any way reflects the Hell that being married to this woman must have been for Mark Kirk, I'd venture that he's a much happier man since June of 2009.

4 years ago

the aspect that bothers me most about some of the comments, both her and on the Huffington Post about this blog is the obsessive concern some posters express about Kirk's sexual orientation. I don't know why anyone would care about that in evaluating him as a candidate for the Senate. It is his weakness and apparent lack of concern for truth and honesty that bother me about Kirk, and although Alexi isn't great, I think he is going to get my vote.

4 years ago
Posted by MCD

The interview is very interesting and authentic. I appreciated her candid description of her life experience with the candidate. Who would know better than the spouse? It was a rational and intelligent interview and I'm looking forward to the second half. When the 2 candidates running for senate are compared, the choice is weighing more heavily in Alexi's favor. While some "anti-Alexi" stories reported appear exaggerated and embellished, the Kirk stories are all him, what he says, which have turned out to be outright lies about his career and accomplishments; and he is the person saying these things. Kirk seems to lack truthfulness, integrity and (now that his wife is gone) his moral compass.

4 years ago
Posted by BigB1954

Rep. Kirk said He would do teh right thing by changing his vote on the Don't Ask Don't Tell when he needs to? Does that mean he is a flip flopper or a lap dog to the right. or both? Remember also he was teh point person in lining up votes for the Terri Schivio fiasco, and Bush's getting involved. He has never represented OUR views, what makes us think he will now?

4 years ago
Posted by Pragmatist

If this doesn't confirm that Mark Kirk is not fit to serve as Illinois' US Senator I don't know what would. Mark Kirk has demonstrated ibso facto that he is unreliable, untruthful,and disingenuous about his stealth positions on issues like 'cap and trade,' big government, and big taxes. He has run his public career trying to mask his hard liberal leanings, or influences as we learn here, and the more he speaks the more he embellishes, misleads, and panders. Mark Kirk and Alex G. are cut from the same cloth and are indistinguishable in their social and fiscal positions, and arguably their character. Why does it have to be the choice of which low character individual is most preferable? At this weighty time of Constitutional crisis and the prospect of, for the first time in our history, that we will hand off a less free and less prosperous country to our succeeding generations, and the very real prospect of the death of what we all call the 'American Dream,' that we simply cannot afford to have the stewards of the will of We The People to be anything but individuals of sound core beliefs who have demonstrated good character. Behavioral science holds that past performance is indicative of what we can reasonably expect from an individual in the future. Mark Kirk has simply demonstrates that he cannot be trusted. For an alternative to Mark Kirk and Alex G. please see: Your freedoms and the prosperity of your kids and grandkids depend on it.

4 years ago
Posted by NoWarriorThat

Has anyone ever notice that there are very few female volunteers on Kirk's Campaign and that many women in his District have little that's nice to say about him?

That's because they're treated rudely by most of his staffers, or behave as if they're going to get "in trouble" if they're nice to you.

Wonder if that's McCracken's "influence" at work again.

Whether he's gay or not, it sounds as if McCracken would like to make sure that that rumor (or fact) ring loud and true.

Less competition for the obviously--and rightly--insecure.

4 years ago
Posted by knowa

" Their union produced no children " subliminal suggestions aside
what is your agenda.

3 years ago
Posted by scottghowell

"It is not an accurate an accurate explanation that Mark is gay"? But it is an accurate explanation that he has sex with men? How funny we Americans are, aren't we?

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