RALEIGH — North Carolina U.S. Senate candidate Cal Cunningham inched back into the public sphere on Wednesday, a day after The Associated Press reported the Democratic contender had an intimate encounter this summer with a public relations consultant.
“I want you to hear something directly from me,” Cunningham said in his first remarks since news of the texts and his affair broke last week. “I am deeply sorry for the hurt I have caused in my personal life and I also apologize to all of you.”
Cunningham delivered a brief live speech at a virtual North Carolina League of Conservation Voters Green Tie Awards event.
Late last Friday, Cunningham released a statement apologizing for hurting his family and disappointing his friends. The National File obtained sext messages from the Democrat to Arlene Guzman Todd, a California strategist. In an interview with The Associated Press, Todd said she and Cunningham had an affair and were intimate as recently as July.
Cunningham didn’t get into specifics in his comments Wednesday night.
“I hope each of you watching at home accept this sincere apology and that we will continue to work together to change the direction of our country and strengthen our state,” he said.
Because he is a lieutenant colonel, Cunningham is now the subject of an Army Reserve investigation.
“The Army Reserve is investigating the matters involving (Lt. Col.) James Cunningham,” Lt. Col. Simon Flake said in an emailed statement Wednesday morning that cited Cunningham by his official first name. “As such, we are unable to provide further details at this time.”
Flake did not explain why the Army is investigating or how Cunningham’s relationship with the woman might affect his military career. Adultery has long been a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Last year the wording was broadened to include any “extramarital sexual contact.” Service members can face a maximum penalty of dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay and confinement for a year.
Without addressing the specifics of Cunningham’s situation, military law expert Eric Carpenter said Wednesday in an interview that a reservist can’t be court-martialed unless several legal hurdles are met, including evidence the sexual contact happened while the reservist was on active duty. However, a commanding officer could separately issue a reprimand for unbecoming conduct, said Carpenter, a professor at Florida International University College of Law.
In an interview with WLOS, Cunningham’s opponent incumbent, Sen. Thom Tillis, said Cunningham owes the voters of North Carolina an explanation.
“This isn’t something that happened five years ago or 10 years ago,” Tillis said. “This is something that happened days or weeks ago.”
After briefly addressing the scandal and apologizing, Cunningham focused his remarks on the stakes of what he called the most important election of our lifetime.
“I will not get sidetracked, and I hope you won’t either,” Cunningham said. “The stakes are too high in this election.”
After Cunningham’s remarks, Luke Blanchat, the campaign manager for Tillis, said the Democrat’s comments "make his scandal and the hypocrisy of his campaign worse.”
“Cal Cunningham needs to stop hiding behind prewritten statements and teleprompters,” Blanchat said. “He needs to answer every single question from reporters he has spent the last week ignoring. North Carolinians deserve a full explanation: The truth still matters.”
Within hours of the military disclosing that it is investigating Cunningham, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, he rejected the idea that the race with Tillis had turned into a referendum on his character, even while expressing remorse for extramarital activity.
“I’ve made it clear that I’ve hurt my family and that I’ve disappointed my supporters, and I’m taking responsibility for that,” Cunningham told WNCN-TV, which found him in the parking lot of a Raleigh coffee shop. “I’m very clear that this campaign isn’t about my personal life; it’s about the people of North Carolina; it’s about the issues that are important to North Carolinians, and that’s what I’m staying focused on.”
Cunningham and his campaign had been largely quiet since he acknowledged the texts last Friday and apologized. But that changed Wednesday with comments by him and his allies.
Cunningham campaign spokesperson Rachel Petri said in a news release that the candidate “will participate in this process,” a reference to the military investigation — but she also noted that it “does not change the stakes of this election or the need for new leaders who will fight for the issues North Carolinians care about.”
Meanwhile, Tillis, who is quarantined in his North Carolina home after testing positive for COVID-19 last week, has gone on television several times saying voters need to hear directly from Cunningham, who he said made the race about integrity in a recent debate. The candidates have faced off three times.
No more debates are scheduled.
Gary D. Robertson with the Associated Press contributed to this article.
Cox Media Group