July 16, 2001 12:00 PM

Every October, California Rep. Gary Condit hosts a picnic fundraiser in his hometown of Ceres, 95 miles east of San Francisco. The event, known as Condit Country, gives some 5,000 of his constituents the chance to shake hands with the charming congressman, a politician so popular he has not lost an election in 30 years of public service. “This guy walks on water; he’s God,” says Sandy Lucas, a local Democratic party official who has known Condit, 53, for years. “People just adore him. They feel they can reach out and touch him.”

To much of the rest of the country, though, Condit is the secretive figure at the center of a deepening mystery. At issue is Condit’s role, if any, in the baffling May 1 disappearance of 24-year-old Chandra Levy, a former Washington intern. In a rare public statement about the case delivered not long after Levy disappeared, Condit maintained that she was just a “good friend.” Since then he has not provided many new details that might help investigators piece together what happened, either in a recent interview with police or in brief conversations with Chandra’s mother. Yet his reticence has only encouraged speculation about his private life. FBI agents have interviewed a United Airlines flight attendant, who apparently told them she had an affair with Condit in the months leading up to Levy’s disappearance, and that, according to FOX News, Condit tried to get her to sign a form denying the affair (Condit’s attorneys declined to comment). The FBI also plans to talk to Condit’s wife, Carolyn, who made a rare trip to the capital just before Levy vanished.

One reason that Condit, a conservative Democrat, has drawn attention is that phone records show Levy called his private answering service a number of times in the days before she was last seen. Despite his claim they were only friends, a relative of Chandra’s insists that “she was dating Condit. She first talked about it to me [last] Thanksgiving, and it was already a relationship by then.” In a second interview with D.C. police, on June 23, Condit did not admit to an affair but, FOX News reported, did say he’d broken off his friendship with Levy when she became infatuated with him. (Condit’s chief of staff, Mike Lynch, denied Condit made such statements.)

Chandra’s frustrated parents, Bob and Susan Levy, flew to Washington from their home in Modesto—in Condit’s central California district—for a June 21 meeting with the congressman. But during the meeting “nothing new was said,” says the Levy relative. The reason Condit has been reluctant to publicly discuss the nature of his friendship with Levy, says Mike Lynch, is because “it’s totally irrelevant.” According to Lynch, “the police say there is no relationship between Gary Condit and [Chandra’s] disappearance. None.” Condit has not been named a suspect in the case, which police still classify as a missing-persons case. Even so, “we have seasoned homicide people working closely with the FBI and forensics experts,” says Terrance Gainer, executive assistant chief of the D.C. Metropolitan police department.

The matter is the first major controversy of Condit’s career. His father, Adrian, a Baptist minister, and mother, Jean, a homemaker, raised Condit, his sister and two brothers on an Oklahoma dairy farm. Condit canned tomatoes and sold paint to pay his way through California State University, Stanislaus, and, at 24, he won his first race, for Ceres city councilman, in 1972, and went on to become mayor of the town. Elected to Congress in 1989, he became known as a straight-shooter who works hard for his constituents (he won 67 percent of the vote last November). “With Gary, his word is gold,” says Robert Matsui, a congressman from Sacramento who has known Condit for 25 years.

A motorcycle enthusiast and country-music fan who doesn’t drink alcohol, Condit has been married to Carolyn, 53, a homemaker, since he was 19. Their two children, son Chad, 33, and daughter Cadee, 25, both work as aides to California governor Gray Davis. Most weekends Condit flies home from D.C., where he has a condo in the trendy Adams Morgan neighborhood, to the family’s modest home in Ceres. Carolyn, who suffers from chronic, debilitating headaches, keeps out of the public eye and away from Washington on all but occasional weekends. “He and Carolyn sit on their stoop together and talk at night in the dark,” says Betty Wells, a long-rime neighbor. “They are a wonderful family.”

The case that has disrupted their lives and put Condit on the hot seat now enters its third month, with no resolution in sight. Chandra Levy’s parents—who have hired their own investigators—are trying their best to stay positive. They intended to gather Chandra’s belongings on their recent trip to Washington, but could not bring themselves to take them home just yet. “They are doing horribly,” says their Modesto neighbor Joanne Tittle. “And nothing will change until they either find Chandra or get closure.” As for Condit, he remains very popular among his loyal constituents. “Nobody here believes Gary had anything to do with Chandra’s disappearance,” says his friend Sandy Lucas. “There has been lots of innuendo, but even if he did have an affair, people see that as something between Gary, his family and God.”

Alex Tresniowski

Champ Clark in Modesto and J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C.

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