Whether you're running for president of the United States or Villa Park, political experts say, any part of your life that winds up on the Internet is fair game for voters, opponents or others trying to judge your fitness for office.
Villa Park village presidential candidate John Heidelmeier may have learned that lesson this week when pictures of him that were posted on a pornographic video-chat website began making the rounds in town, forcing him to apologize publicly for what he called a “personally embarrassing” photo.
A former Villa Park police chief, Heidelmeier is running for village president in the April 9 election against sitting trustee Deborah Bullwinkel.
The two photos that emerged were posted on a website touting itself as offering “your most diverse phone sex experience.”
Heidelmeier's photos appear on a “blackmail” portion of the site, because he allegedly did not complete a specific act during his video chat with the operator.
One photo shows Heidelmeier's face looking directly into his webcam, while the other shows his exposed genitals from beneath a blue shirt. According to the site, the video chat took place on the afternoon of Feb. 7.
Heidelmeier took responsibility and apologized for the photos in a written statement late Wednesday. How the incident affects his campaign remains to be seen.
Tracey Mendrek, executive vice president of Culloton Strategies, specializes in public relations crisis management.
She said Thursday it's important for everyone, including political candidates, to realize the infinity of the Internet.
“Pictures and words on the Internet last forever,” Mendrek said. “I think any candidate for any office should expect to be asked (whether there are any unflattering images of them online) by a PR veteran or consultant and they have to be completely honest. You can't expect in today's day and age that something like this isn't going to make its way into the public domain because it already is in the public domain.”
Political communications analyst Thom Serafin has served as press secretary for several U.S. Senate campaigns,
Gary Hart's ill-fated 1988 presidential bid, and on the Washington, D.C., staff of U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon. It was during
Hart's 1988 campaign and the Donna Rice sex scandal that he learned a valuable lesson.
“There are no secrets and this poor guy is learning that lesson right now,” Serafiin said. “You know how you keep a secret? First, you don't tell anyone and second, you certainly don't get naked online with a web camera.”
The situation gets even more complicated in a local election, he said.
“Once you enter the arena, all communications, all texts and all photos are open to scrutiny and all are fair game,” he said. “The most difficult campaigns are local politics and he's gotten into an arena where everything he does is under the microscope.”
Aside from photos and communications, the experts agree personal decisions lend themselves to scrutiny from voters deciding how they want to be represented.
Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the presumption of privacy no longer exists and inferences can be drawn
“Certainly there are people who will find this behavior disqualifying and examples of reckless and immoral behavior. And that all points right to character,” Redfield said. “Candidates are asking voters to trust them and represent them by making good decisions and when a bad decision becomes public, it's perfectly legitimate to raise these questions.”
Heidelmeier released a statement late Wednesday vowing to “remain steadfast” in the race for village president. Earlier in the day, when reached by phone, he declined to comment on the photos.
“I acknowledge that these images on this website are of me. I did nothing unlawful or anything that diminishes my ability to serve the people of Villa Park,” he wrote in his statement. “I regret that this private situation became public and I apologize to my supporters, but more importantly to my wife and family. This is unquestionably not fair to them.”
Mendrek said Heidelmeier's apology may win favor with some voters who now may view him as an underdog.
“The public likes apology tours and supporting underdogs. And in some ways, this makes him the underdog,” she said. “It is difficult, though, to separate the details of this story from a mayor who would be representing the village at school functions or public events. What he did is now and forever in the record and voters will have to make a tough decision about whether that is who represents them.”
Heidelmeier's opponent, Bullwinkel, said she first saw the photos when a political ally made her aware of them Tuesday afternoon. She said the voters should decide whether the indiscretions play a role in the campaign.
“Frankly, I consider this whole thing a private matter that John and his family are going to have to deal with. We should all be respecting their privacy as they work through it,” Bullwinkle said Thursday. “I'm just focused on hopefully getting elected and whatever comes beyond that.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.