It's a Wilde Ride On the Oregon Campaign Trail

MELINDA WILDE would make a really good state senator, her husband says. ''She is so upstanding,'' says Thomas Wilde, ''so ethical, so trustworthy.''

But she's not his first choice for the District 8 Senate seat. He is.

It's not the first time a couple has found itself in opposite political camps. Political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin earned celebrity as much for their unlikely union as their political savvy at opposing ends of the 1992 presidential campaign.

But the Wilde matchup is the first time in Oregon - and one of those rare moments in US history - that a couple has run against each other for the same political office.

''They say all politics is local,'' says Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling. ''This is about as local as it gets.''

After serving as his wife's campaign manager, Thomas tired of his lawyer-wife's Republican views. She wouldn't take his suggestions. And he began to believe she wouldn't have a chance in the heavily Democratic district unless she softened her message.

When Melinda sent him to a two-day GOP campaign strategy seminar, Thomas decided he'd had enough. The lifelong Democrat came back and filed for the seat himself. Now, his and her campaign signs sit on their north Portland lawn.

Politics and strange bedfellows indeed.

''I thought people would think it was a joke,'' she says about learning of his plans. ''I thought he would destroy any chance I've got of winning and destroy it for both of us.'' But she never doubted he was serious.

The Wildes have always argued about politics. Thrived on it. Valentine's Day was no exception. The couple spent the romantic holiday sparring over their political differences.

''She has some great qualities, but she does not let anyone know it,'' says Thomas, who gave his wife cards and chocolates. ''To me, that is not the sign of a good politician. A good politician exploits every good quality they have to its fullest.''

''What he doesn't understand,'' says Melinda, who gave her husband a coffee mug, ''is that I've always detested those politicians who are so egotistical, who think that what they believe is the only thing that can be followed.''

Thomas tries to interrupt, but she continues: ''We have a complex society with complex problems, and if one politician says they have all the answers they are fooling themselves and the public.''

The couple met through a dating service. Thomas Wilde wasn't sure about dating a lawyer. ''She looked too conservative,'' he says.

Melinda's first impression wasn't much better. ''He looked like a mountain man,'' she says. ''Too granola.''

But their mutual love for classical music - she plays viola, he has authored two books on violin makers - sparked an interest that led Melinda to invite him to a pops concert. Less than a year later, he proposed.

''I finally said to her, 'Look I'm not getting any younger and I don't really even want to get married, but if I'm going to, I might as well marry you.'''

Melinda said no. If he wanted a different answer, she told him, he was going to have to do better than that. So he amended his plea. She accepted.

FIVE years have passed, and they now have a rosy-cheeked 19-month-old son, Evan, whom Thomas cares for as a stay-at-home dad. He handles investments for his wife's family mortgage and loan business.

Melinda and her brother run the family business, Lincoln Loan Co., which handles low-income housing.

The Wildes won't square off in the election, technically, unless Thomas defeats 22-year incumbent Bill McCoy in the May 21 Democratic primary. Senator McCoy has no lock on the seat. He has been criticized by local newspapers for his low attendance record. With the filing deadline on March 12, Melinda is running unopposed.

If both Wildes win, they promise a (mostly) clean fight.

''I don't like a negative campaign, whether I'm related to my opponent or not,'' Melinda says.

''I won't do a negative campaign as long as she doesn't,'' Thomas says. But after all, he says drily, she's an attorney. ''What she views as being a tactical maneuver could well be considered by many to be nasty.''

Naturally, the combative couple disagrees on most major issues.

On the Balanced Budget Amendment: He wants one, but not the one House Speaker Newt Gingrich has proposed. She's for it.

On crime: He wants closed Army bases turned into prison boot camps. She believes prisoners need training and education.

On the environment: He wants tougher laws, tougher restrictions. She believes the government has to work more with businesses.

The couple hits rare harmony on one issue: their son's future party affiliation.

''Independent,'' they say.

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