Montana Senator Max Baucus, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a key player in health-care reform, has been involved with his share of feisty women. His second wife Wanda Minge was arrested in 2004 for fighting with a woman at a suburban Virginia garden store. (Minge was reportedly upset that she was not being helped by the staff at a garden supplies shop with loading mulch on to her car; the charges were eventually lowered to misdemeanor assault and a plea deal avoided prosecution.) The 2007 holiday season was the last time in their quarter-century marriage that the oversized Christmas card from "Max & Wanda" bearing one of her paintings went out to Montana supporters. Their divorce became final in April 2009.
By then, Baucus, who turns 68 this Friday, had begun a relationship with the lawyer Melodee Hanes, 53. Early this year, he had nominated her to be U.S. Attorney for Montana, a Presidential appointment. The nomination was later withdrawn, he said, so that they could live together in D.C. There was much tittering in Washington circles (particularly among those opposed to health-care reform) when Reuters broke the news over the weekend. The Democratic Senator's office declared that the nomination was made on Hanes' merits and not because of the romantic relationship.
Hanes was relatively new to Montana, having moved to Billings from Iowa in 1999 with her then husband, Dr. Paul Bennett. Bennett had been state medical examiner and she was an assistant county prosecutor in Polk County, Iowa. But a legal controversy pursued him into Montana. His testimony had help lead to the imprisonment of a young Iowa couple accused of shaking their baby to death in 1997. The couple was later freed after Bennett's autopsy report and his methods were discredited by peer-reviewing pathologists. The prosecution then moved for dismissal of charges. (Bennett's Iowa controversy was reported in-depth by the Los Angeles Times in July 1999.)
Hanes had made her own reputation in Iowa as an aggressive prosecutor of child abuse charges. The July 1999 Los Angeles Times story has her laughing at public speculation in Iowa that she unduly influenced Bennett's diagnoses. But a 2007 federal appeals court opinion on a 1995 Iowa shaken-slammed baby murder case said that she had improperly ordered medical evidence in the case withheld from the defense, and, in a note, observed that "the evidence of Dr. Bennett's marriage to prosecutor Hanes should have been permitted at trial to imply bias." The appeals court judges said that while that relationship did not ultimately "prejudice the result" of the trial (which they upheld); yet they observed that "every court that has reviewed this case has been struck by certain aspects of the trial and actions of prosecutors that violate the fundamental notions of fair play on which our legal system is based."
Dr. Bennett is now an associate Montana State medical examiner, who performs autopsies and testifies often in criminal cases. He and Hanes divorced in December 2008 for undisclosed reasons. Petite and bright-eyed, Hanes was a mover and shaker in Iowa political and social circles, and in Montana she soon charmed local Democratic party leaders and the boards of several non-profits. After a short stint with the county prosecutor's office in Billings, she joined Baucus' local field office staff in 2002. He made her his state director in 2005, overseeing seven field offices. In December 2008, she worked briefly as a senior adviser to the Senate Finance Committee chaired by Baucus.
Whether or not she would have weathered a Senate confirmation process for the federal prosecutor post is now moot because the nomination has been dropped. In any case, Hanes already has another job in Washington, a political appointment with the Justice Department at a post overseeing juvenile justice issues. Those close to Baucus are concerned that he let the Hanes revelation come up while he was in the middle of the health-care battle, possibly the most crucial legislative action of his long career.
Nevertheless, Baucus is indisputably at a career high. He is flush with millions in leftover campaign funds and is chair of the Senate Finance Committee. He also has influence in the White House in the form of his former chief of staff, Jim Messina, who is now a senior White House aide. And with Hanes at his side, he has embarked on another chance at love.