Essex girl on the road to the White House

Elizabeth Harper was an idealistic, tongue-pierced 27-year-old when she moved to the US in 2005. Now married to a top Democrat politician, she aims to become First Lady. Andrew Gumbel reports
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She's an idealistic young Englishwoman. He's an American politician more than twice her age, making his second run for the presidency and his third run at marital bliss. She's six feet tall with long, flowing, red hair. He's short, with looks unprepossessing enough to earn him comparisons to one of the hobbits from The Lord of the Rings.

Nothing, in other words, about the union of Elizabeth Harper, now Kucinich, and her husband Dennis Kucinich fits the usual clichéd categories of a Mills and Boon romance. Except there it is. The seasoned, ultra-liberal congressman from Cleveland, Ohio, and the fresh-faced VSO veteran fell in love almost instantly when they met a little over two years ago, and they have been inseparable ever since.

Mr Kucinich's die-hard – but, unfortunately for him, not very numerous – band of supporters would love to think that Elizabeth's presence on the campaign trail will give him just the shot in the arm he needs to garner support for his opposition to the Iraq war, his calls for gun control and an end to the death penalty, his demands for the impeachment of the Vice President, Dick Cheney, and his dream of replacing the Pentagon with a Department of Peace.

The brutal reality of modern American political life, though, is that Elizabeth Kucinich is getting plenty of attention for her looks, her British citizenship, and the fact that she towers over her husband, but almost none for the issues that are firing both of them as they tour college campuses and attend Democratic candidates' debates in the run-up to the primary season starting in January.

"It's important not to trivialise a woman who has worked on international humanitarian matters, helping people in Africa to get access to energy and education and housing," Mr Kucinich pleaded to a breakfast television interviewer during a joint appearance earlier this month. "I hope you are going to talk about more than her tongue stud."

But her tongue stud was exactly the thing that the interviewer wanted to focus on. Would Elizabeth take it out, she asked, if she became First Lady? "It's been there 10 years, it's part of me now," Mrs Kucinich replied with as much grace as she could muster. Could she give the audience a peek, came the follow-up question. "No I can't," she answered flatly.

In the handful of profiles that have appeared since the campaign started moving into high gear, Elizabeth Kucinich has often been categorised as Essex Girl goes west – the young, inexperienced provincial woman who's managed to snag herself a high-profile politician. That characterisation is both demeaning and also a little misleading. Sure, she is from Essex – she is from the village of North Ockendon, near Upminster, which has the distinction of being the only part of Greater London to fall outside the M25. But her mindset and her education are anything but narrow and provincial.

She has a master's degree in international conflict resolution from the University of Kent. Even before she went to university, she went to India to volunteer for one of the children's homes set up by Mother Teresa. After she graduated, she went with the VSO to rural Tanzania, where she worked on education, HIV prevention and a micro biogas energy project in a subsistence farming community.

She's less of an Essex girl, in other words, and more like a Princess Diana wannabe. She was a huge admirer of Diana and stood in line for six hours at Kensington Palace to pay her respects when she died. If she fits any stereotype, it is that of the hippy-dippy peace activist, with an unshakable earnestness about all she does, a fascination with mysticism and eastern religions, and a belief that, when it comes to making the world a better place, every individual effort counts.

Those were the attributes that attracted her and Mr Kucinich to each other in the first place. In May 2005, Elizabeth Harper had just arrived in the United States and was working for a Chicago-based outfit called the American Monetary Institute, which advocates radical reform in the world's financial systems.

She and her boss, Stephen Zarlenga, went to Mr Kucinich's office in Washington for a meeting and she immediately noticed three things: a nun in white robes in the reception area, a picture illustrating "light consciousness", and a bust of Mahatma Gandhi. "Now this is an interesting man," she later recalled thinking.

Mr Kucinich, for his part, picked up on her interest immediately. "I saw her eyes go to the light consciousness picture, then to the Gandhi bust, then to me," he told his hometown newspaper, Cleveland's The Plain Dealer. "It was like one, two, three. That's when I knew."

They started a mostly business-like email correspondence, then met again two weeks later when they both happened to be in New Mexico. Mr Kucinich snagged an invitation for her and Mr Zarlenga to a lunch hosted by Shirley MacLaine, the actress turned New Age author.

At the time, Elizabeth was as excited about having lunch with MacLaine as she was about seeing Mr Kucinich again. MacLaine's books had a huge influence on her mother, who was so inspired she took up a second career as an alternative healer. It didn't take long, though, for her to realise the true focus of her interest. MacLaine invited everyone to stay at her house in Santa Fe overnight, Dennis and Elizabeth stayed up talking until dawn, and within a few days decided to get married. A few days earlier, Elizabeth had bought herself an opal – her birthstone – which she rapidly nicknamed her "Dennis ring". She noticed something she hadn't when she first bought it – that it was inlaid with silver forming a double-K pattern. She took that as a sure sign she had met her soulmate.

Her family took a little persuading she was making the right decision after such a whirlwind romance. When her father asked her how old her fiancé was, she replied: "A bit older than you." Graham Harper said he wanted at least to talk to Mr Kucinich before giving his blessing to their union. They spoke on the phone and Elizabeth's father was duly reassured.

Mr Kucinich has been married twice before – both times the marriage ended in divorce – and was single for more than 20 years before he met Elizabeth. Still, he knows a thing or two about second, and third, chances in life. He burst on to the national scene as the big city mayor, taking over the reins in Cleveland in 1977 when he was just 31. It was a rare opportunity for a young radical, in a city that just happened to be in the mood for drastic change because of one industrial scandal after another including, most notoriously, enough chemical dumping in the Cuyahoga river to set it on fire.

Mr Kucinich narrowly escaped a mafia contract on his life, and was drummed out of office after just two years when he refused to sell off the city's public electricity company. For years it seemed as though he was a flash in the pan, but he worked tirelessly to keep his name recognition high in the city and, in 1996, successfully won election to the US Congress.

He has built up his reputation ever since as the darling of the American left-wing fringe – an audience that rewards him with its dedication but almost certainly alienates him from the mainstream, particularly when he throws in his fascination with Shirley MacLaine's dreamy spirituality and alternative healing theories. MacLaine's most recent book reveals that Mr Kucinich claims to have sighted a UFO – a revelation he was too polite to refute when asked about it at a candidates' debate in Philadelphia last month.

Mr Kucinich was a ruggedly independent candidate in 2004, when he first ran for the presidency, and he's been equally outspoken this time – the only Democrat of any prominence calling for a serious change of direction in US military and foreign policy. In a country whose electorate has repeatedly told pollsters it wants an end to the Iraq war too, one might think Mr Kucinich could gain more traction than he has. The media and the political establishment has given him almost no publicity outside the little-watched debates, though, and he has been entirely marginalised by the horse-race coverage of frontrunner Hillary Clinton, with Barack Obama and John Edwards lagging some distance behind her.

In 2004, Mr Kucinich couldn't climb out of single digits in most of the primaries in which he competed – even in his native Ohio, he won just 9 per cent of the Democratic vote – and all indications are he will fare just as poorly this time.

That's a frustration for everyone on his campaign, his wife included, but not something that they allow to daunt their spirits. "The only thing that makes Dennis unelectable is an electorate that doesn't believe in itself," Elizabeth asserted in an address to an audience in Colorado a few days ago.

If the media didn't focus more on him, she added, that was their problem. It's a fine, idealistic stance, but it probably won't put her in line for the First Lady post any time soon.

Married to the job: Brits abroad in politics

Penelope Fillon: A Welsh mother of five, Penelope Fillon, née Clarke, is also France's 'second lady', married to the French Prime Minister François Fillon. A law student from near Abergavenny, she met her husband when they were both working at the French defence ministry in the late 1970s. M. Fillon's brother, Pierre, married Penelope's sister, Jane.

Jemima Khan

The daughter of Sir James Goldsmith, Jemima married Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan in 1995, converting to Islam a few months before the ceremony. Her husband quit the crease for a life in the political arena as an opposition politician. The pair had two children before divorcing in 2004. As tensions flared this month in Pakistan and her ex-husband went on the run to evade house arrest, Jemima acted as his spokesman to the Western media.

Asma Assad

Growing up in west London, her classmates knew her as Emma. Now she is almost universally known as al akilatu al rais – the President's wife. She married the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, in a private ceremony on New Year's Day 2001.

Stephen Kinnock

The former Labour leader's son is married to a Danish woman who nearly became the first member of the Kinnock family to govern a nation. Opposition leader Helle Thorning-Schmidt, narrowly missed out on becoming the PM in Denmark's elections.