Kelley Paul gets ready for her media blizzard

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Kelley Paul, wife of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. (Photo: Mary F. Calvert for Yahoo News)

Kelley Ashby Paul was dressed for the weather as she trudged through the last storm of the Washington, D.C., winter to meet a reporter. Fuzzy woolen hat, complete with earflaps and pompom, on her head. Knee-high waterproof boots with faux fur trim on her feet. Puffy white parka zipped in between.

Her husband, Rand, meanwhile, was home, still dry and warm, in the couple’s tiny Capitol Hill apartment. The junior senator from Kentucky and presumed presidential candidate had nowhere to be on this weekday morning because the federal government, in fact the entire city, was shut down. (No, not by the Tea Party; by the snow.) That Kelley was out in the storm made metaphorical sense, because she isn’t really “of” D.C., and unlike Rand, she doesn’t officially work for the government.

SLIDESHOW: Kelley Paul — The photo shoot »

Home, for her, is still Bowling Green, Ky., where she was raising her three sons as a stay-at-home wife of a small-town ophthalmologist in the 20 years before Rand ran for office. Where she lived full-time until this year, when she finally took the next step in the transformation and enrolled her youngest in a D.C. private school. Now her tight circle of hometown friends takes care of her house — dealing, for instance, with the time a bird got inside and “pooped all over the bathroom” and picking her up at the airport when she manages to fly back once a month or so.

Politics, like the clergy and the military, is one of the few fields where it’s assumed that the spouse — particularly the wife — will take on part of the job. It is an anachronism from a time when all wives were defined by the work of their husbands, and it’s an increasingly tough role to navigate now that the political spotlight is brighter and the political pace is faster.

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Rand and Kelley Paul at the Time 100 gala in New York in 2013 (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

The cycle from nobody to power player is shorter now — convention keynoter to president, Bowling Green doctor to presumed presidential candidate — and the ups and downs are sharper. So while it is Rand Paul’s hat that everyone expects will be thrown into the ring next month, it’s also Kelley Paul’s, earflaps, pompoms and all.

Already, she says, “Rand wears a baseball hat when we go out” if he wants some privacy, but soon, she knows, “that won’t work anymore. It’s been something that has taken getting used to.

“Everyone thinks this is something I know how to do, but we’re very new to politics,” Kelley says. “I am proud of him, and I think he could win, but I’m also OK with the kind of life I had four years ago.”

Settling into a booth and ordering scrambled eggs and bacon on this snowy morning, Kelley isn’t recognized, but she is noticed. Now 51, she has always been a presence, this striking blonde with penetrating blue eyes. A woman so confident that she cheerfully agrees to pose outside in the snowstorm, working the camera like an experienced model, without a moment of worry about looking disheveled. “A cheerleader type,” one of her best friends from college says, “a real sorority girl.”

While it is Rand Paul’s hat that will be thrown into the ring next month, it’s also Kelley Paul’s — earflaps, pompoms and all.

Sure, it’s wrong to describe women in political profiles in ways you would never describe men, but as she herself points out, most profiles of her husband make quick mention of his unruly curly hair and his boyish looks. (Which is why the baseball hat trick works, she says — because people recognize him by that hair.)

Rand Paul has always looked younger than he is, Kelley says, and she almost didn’t date him as a result. They first met at a backyard oyster roast in 1988, when she was a few years out of college and working in Atlanta, writing brochures and direct mail for Sprint. Her first thought was that he was cute — for a teenager.

She ignored him for much of the party, until a portion of a deck gave way and several guests were slightly injured. “Good thing there are all these doctors here,” someone said. Looking toward the commotion, Kelley saw Rand among those heading to help. “He’s a doctor?” she remembers thinking. “I thought he was 18 years old.”

He was in Atlanta for several months, completing a surgical rotation at Georgia Baptist Hospital. They wound up dating for the rest of his stay. As he prepared to go back to North Carolina to finish his training at Duke, Rand suggested that she interview at some companies in Durham so they could be together.

“I was in love with him, but I was sort of offended by him asking that,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Does he really think I am going to leave my fantastic job in Atlanta to follow after him?’ I loved my career, and it was going well — big promotion at 25 to be a full manager, with a staff, a budget. I was also thinking that since I only had an undergraduate degree, I might need to get an MBA, and I was excited about that.”

But then there was a weekend at a cabin in North Carolina, where the rhododendrons were in bloom, and where the picnic lunch included a diamond ring. They married, and moved, and Kelley became the family breadwinner, doing corporate writing projects for companies in the Raleigh-Durham research triangle until Rand graduated from medical school.

It was Kelley who decided they would next move to Kentucky. As an “Air Force brat” who’d lived all over the country and even spent a few years in Turkey as a young child, home to her was Russellville, Ky., where she graduated from high school and where her parents had settled.

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Rand and Kelley Paul, with their son, wave to supporters during a 2010 election night party in Bowling Green, Ky. (Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The couple also looked at jobs in Texas, where Rand’s parents lived (back then his father, Ron, was a one-term congressman from Texas who had not yet made his own run for president) along with his five siblings. But, “I was not a great fan of Texas; it wasn’t green enough,” Kelley says.

Then Kelley learned she was pregnant, and soon after that her mother called to say a freak boating accident had killed the ophthalmologist in nearby Bowling Green.

By the time Rand came home that afternoon, “I had booked us a flight to Kentucky to take a look,” she says. “He wanted to be in a small town, and I figured if I was going to be in a small town, I wanted to be near my parents. I remember him saying, ‘If we go to Kentucky, I guess we would never run for office,’” she says, “and that was as much discussion as we gave to a life in politics back then.”

So Kentucky it was. They arrived in 1993 with infant William in tow, and their plan was that Kelley would continue to work as a corporate writer while Rand built a medical practice. The down payment on their house came from a project she did for Nortel. She continued to freelance steadily through the birth of Duncan in 1996, writing mostly direct-mail pieces and sales and marketing manuals, then stopped altogether when Robert arrived in 1999.

From then on, her work was in support of his — producing newsletters and mailings for his practice, running the payroll, keeping the books, managing a remodel of the building where he saw patients. She also drove the boys to so many sports — baseball, soccer, football, hockey, basketball, swimming, golf — that one of her sons got her a bracelet dubbing her an “All Sports Mom.”

“I remember him saying, ‘If we go to Kentucky, I guess we would never run for office.” – Kelley Paul

It was a chapter, she says, a pause in a career to which she always assumed she would return. What she didn’t expect was that she would become a candidate’s wife.

“People look at it now and think this was always the goal,” she says. “Because Ron Paul is famous now, that confuses people. But when I met Rand, Ron was just a former congressman from the ’70s who was back to working as an ob-gyn. I did not consider them a political family.”

She takes a slight, but noticeable, pause.

“Not like some other families,” she says, and her tone and slight smile seem to make it clear she means her husband’s expected presidential rivals, the Bushes or the Clintons.

Then, like the political player she’s only recently become, she quickly adds, “But I’m not here to talk about politics.”

To talk about it or not — that is another piece of her recent learning curve. She is new to this realm where strangers care about her opinions, and she is increasingly guarded about what she shares.

“‘Political’ is not the first word you think of when you describe her,” says Brigid Galloway, now an editor at Time Inc., who has known Kelley since they both attended new-student weekend at Rhodes College in Tennessee in 1981.

And what words would Galloway use?

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Kelley Paul speaks about her upcoming book at the Republican Women’s Club in Russellville, Ky., in January 2015. (Photo: Erik Schelzig/AP)

“Fun, the life of the party, so well put together, the accessory queen,” she offers.

“Cheerleader, cute, fun to be around,” adds Blair Norman, now an administrator at a Colorado CPA firm who roomed with Kelley for most of college and several more years after graduation. “I was the ‘organize and pay the bills’ kind of person. She was the social planner. You hung on her coattails to meet people.”

Norman was living nearby the summer that Kelley met Rand. “He had a lot of opinions, and that was maybe different from who she usually dated, but I don’t think it was” a relationship “about politics,” Norman says.

At that first party, Kelley agrees, “we talked a lot about books,” particularly “The Brothers Karamazov.” “Even at 25, he was like no one I had ever met before. He was a big reader about history, politics, issues. He still is. But it’s not like we spend all our time talking policy.”

There’s that look again, part scowl, part smirk, the one she seems to get when she might be talking about other political couples whose relationships might be rooted in policy. In one of the few profiles she’s been interviewed for, in Vogue magazine two years ago, Kelley was quoted as calling Bill Clinton “predatory,” describing his behavior in office, particularly his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, as “offensive to women.” 

And here in this coffee shop, even as she is once again insisting that she’s not “here to talk politics,” she all but snorts out her coffee when asked if having a man as first spouse — Bill Clinton, say — might eliminate the taint of sexism that clings to the role.

“Do not get me started on that subject,” she says, all but literally biting her tongue. “I shouldn’t go there.”

“My life was going in one direction, and I was extremely happy with that life. Why would we walk away from such a comfortable, happy and peaceful life?” – Kelley Paul

Her husband has said that whether or not to “go there” in the more global sense — whether or not he should run for higher office — has always been her decision, and that she “has veto power.” She has seriously considered using it. She describes being surprised when he began to explore a race for the Senate seat he won in 2010, and she looks back on that decision, and forward to the next one, with mixed feelings.

She was worried then, she says, about the toll a political life takes on politicians’ families, and now she isn’t sure she wants her world to be upended even more. “My life was going in one direction, and I was extremely happy with that life,” she says. “Why would we walk away from such a comfortable, happy and peaceful life?”

But she also describes enjoying the campaign process more than she’d expected. At first a bit “overwhelmed,” she says she “found that the more involved I was … the less stressed I was.” Drawing on her years as a copywriter and corporate messenger, she says, “I worked closely with our media team [getting] very involved in the concepts, visuals and messaging of our ads.” She edited her husband’s speeches and books, adding her liberal arts flair to his doctor’s prose.

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Kelley Paul in Washington (Photo: Mary F. Calvert for Yahoo News)

In fact, it was such a good fit that after he won his Senate seat, she began to freelance for a Republican consulting firm, advising other candidates and campaigns — most notably including Ted Cruz. She loved the work, she says, but as exploration of a Paul presidential campaign geared up, and it became clearer that Cruz was a likely primary opponent, she once again left a job for her family in the summer of 2013.

Since then, she has done the work of a Senator’s senator’s wife. She’s a comfortable public speaker, she says, and a popular one back in Kentucky. A few years ago, she gave a speech about her grandmother, Julia O’Toole Wessell, who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland in 1929, describing her as a regal woman who brought dignity, and even glamour, to her work as a housekeeper to Manhattan’s upper crust. This got Kelley thinking of all the strong women who came before her in life, and who shaped her generation of friends.

So she turned to those friends — particularly a group of seven Rhodes College classmates who have reunited for a weekend almost every year since their graduation in 1985. Last year, when they all turned 50, she asked each one to share an essay about one strong woman, and then she turned those into a book, “True and Constant Friends,” which will be published by Hachette next month.

Is it coincidence that her pub date is the week that her husband is expected to announce his run for the Republican nomination? Of course not. Like everything else in her world right now, the book is a tangle of the personal and the political. It is the fulfillment of a writer’s dream, but also a campaign document. It gives her a chance to burrow into friendships that predate fame, friendships that are old enough to be trusted. And it also gives the candidate a chance to write a foreword that describes his wife as the latest link in a line of “women in my family” who “have been … strong-willed and opinionated” and to slip in the fact that “my sisters both work outside the home” — all of which theoretically speaks to women voters.

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“Would I have gotten the interest of a publisher if Rand weren’t my husband? Probably not,” she Kelley says. “They have an interest in what I have to say because of who Rand is.”

So she has decided to accept the complexities and contradictions. Write the book that she has always wanted to write, knowing that it is not completely her accomplishment, but decide to fill it with original artwork from the HomeFront Family Preservation Center in Lawrence, N.J., a refuge to homeless mothers and their children and consider it oblique clout well used. (Proceeds from an auction of the originals of those paintings will be donated to the center.) To turn to long-standing friendships as an anchor in what she calls the “contact sport of American politics” and also use those friendships as a campaign calling card. To understand that this new job means being simultaneously scrutinized and invisible.

Kelley recalls the CPAC convention last year, where her husband overwhelmingly won the straw poll, and an interview he did with Fox’s Greta Van Susteren in a crowded room.

“We were surrounded by young people. It was such a crush, and at one point I found myself literally flattened against a wall,” she says. “I look to my right, and there’s Greta’s husband, equally flattened. He looks at me and says, ‘Isn’t it great being the spouse?’”

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