WASHINGTON — For 21 years, Heather Poe, a low-key former UPS supervisor from Colorado, has been partnered with Mary Cheney, daughter of Dick Cheney — and thus conjoined with one of the nation's highest-profile political families. Yet Poe's most publicly known trait is that she does not want to be publicly known.
“Incredibly private,” Mary Cheney has called the woman she married last year and is raising two children with in Great Falls, Va.
“Very unassuming,” says Stephanie Ciulla, a friend who plays ice hockey with Poe every week. “She's about as average a person as you'd want to meet, and I don't mean that in any negative way.”
Absolutely not interested in talking to the news media, Poe has always made clear.
But on Nov. 17, she let loose with a Facebook salvo shared 'round the world. Defending same-sex marriage, Poe fired back at Liz Cheney — Mary's older sister, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Wyoming — after Liz reaffirmed on “Fox News Sunday” her opposition to gay marriage. In effect, Poe, who is typically sheltered in the wings, aimed a klieg light at herself.
“Liz has been a guest in our home, has spent time and shared holidays with our children, and when Mary and I got married in 2012 — she didn't hesitate to tell us how happy she was for us,” Poe wrote. “To have her now say she doesn't support our right to marry is offensive to say the least.”
Heather Roan Poe, 52, had always been the good, silent soldier — especially throughout the Bush-Cheney administration, as the Republican base consistently inveighed against same-sex marriage, and President George W. Bush backed a constitutional amendment to ban such unions.
For some Cheney family watchers, Poe's comments were a shock: Why now, and why so publicly?
The same questions apply to Mary, 44, who forcefully endorsed Poe's sentiments on Facebook. Mary declared Liz to be “on the wrong side of history.” Six weeks earlier, in a less-noticed Facebook post, Mary called her sister's opposition to same-sex marriage “dead wrong.”
The statements represent an unprecedented schism in a notoriously on-message clan, Cheney associates say.
“This is the first public break,” says Kevin Kellems, who was White House communications director for Vice President Dick Cheney. “The Cheneys set the mark for discipline and unity. They were always one.”
He theorized that Poe now “feels liberated to speak her own mind” because there is no longer a Cheney in office. “It may reflect an evolution of the polity as much as the evolution of a family,” Kellems said.
“Hers is a powerful voice because she has been patient. And I say that as a big Liz Cheney fan — I think Liz is a major political force to be reckoned with, whether she wins this race or not.”
In Cheney World, politics further cements parental and filial bonds. As girls in 1978, Mary and Liz were deployed on their dad's first congressional campaign. Mary served as an aide during both of her father's vice presidential races. Liz served in his administration in a prominent State Department post. Dick Cheney is said to see a political heir in Liz — he has been boosting her for public office for years.
After the feud erupted, some in GOP circles wondered about Poe's role: Perhaps she pushed Mary from quietly opposing to openly challenging her sister? Knowing the key players, one Bush White House veteran speculated, “It's less Mary than it is Heather.” Poe is the non-Cheney in the mix, one view holds, and therefore she may have been more willing to crack the cone of silence.
Those with knowledge of the family's inner workings would speak only on the condition of anonymity, so as to not court estrangement. Mary Cheney would not grant an interview, and neither would Poe.
Mary's Facebook posts do not leap out as the work of someone being led; she is known to be quite strong-minded. There's another less complicated conclusion: that she and Poe simply took to the Internet to defend their marriage and reject the implication that their bond and their children — a son, 6, and a daughter, 4 — were somehow different, less valid.
“What prompted Heather to speak out is that she is a mother; it's not about her anymore,” says Ciulla, who has known Poe since establishing a women's hockey league seven years ago. “She is doing what any parent would do. It doesn't matter who your partner is in life, it matters that you take care of your children. And they are thinking of them.”
Perhaps even more surprising than the public disagreement is that the sisters, three years apart in age and described as remarkably close, have become alienated.
“I don't think Liz means to hurt her sister,” says Karen Spencer, who worked on Dick Cheney's first congressional campaign, joined him on Capitol Hill and has known the sisters since they were young. In a comment on Mary's Facebook page, Spencer pronounced herself “appalled” by Liz's position.
“I haven't talked to them in a long time, but I don't understand why Liz is doing this; a lot of us don't,” Spencer, a political consultant in California, said by phone. “I've never seen two sisters closer than these two.”
Her advice: “I think the girls need to sit down and have a long talk.”
The holidays would be a good time to do that, but hard-and-fast lines are drawn. The day her post went up, Mary Cheney told the New York Times that she would not be seeing her sister for Christmas. There is no indication that her position has changed.
Christmas at the Cheney spread in Jackson Hole, Wyo., is a venerable, joyful tradition, and Poe long has been welcomed into the fold.
“She's told me the Cheneys have always been accepting of her and never done anything to make her uncomfortable. Never,” Ciulla said. “She feels she is part of that family and has never felt otherwise. She is their child.”
Mary Cheney and Poe met as ice-hockey competitors in the late 1980s or early '90s. “I was a goalie and she was a defenseman. I think she scored on her first shot because I was really bad,” Cheney once told People magazine.
Mary attended Colorado College and Poe played for one of the teams in the league, according to Mary's 2006 book, “Now It's My Turn.” Poe's academic history is unclear. (Members of her family would not give interviews, either.)
Cheney graduated in 1991. The next year, she and Poe — brunette, slightly taller and eight years older than the blond Mary — started dating. Nearly everything publicly known about their relationship comes from the book and from interviews Mary did to promote it.
The couple bought homes together in 1994 and 1998 in the Denver area, according to public records, and they lived there for several years. They share a love of snowboarding, mountain biking and other outdoor sports. (Mary's Secret Service handle was “Alpine.”)
A challenge to the couple's relative anonymity emerged amid signs that Dick Cheney, who headed the 2000 vice presidential search committee, would end up as Bush's running mate. “Personally, I'd rather not be known as the vice president's lesbian daughter,” Mary says she told her father, but pledged to do “whatever I can to help out on the campaign.”
Mary talked to Heather about it. “She is a smart, warm, funny and incredibly private person who rarely enjoys being at the center of attention,” Mary's book says. “Heather was not thrilled with the idea of herself and our private life being pushed into the public eye. . . . 'It's not my first choice,' she said, 'but I love you and we'll figure out a way to deal with whatever happens next.' ”
In the 2000 vice presidential debate, Dick Cheney staked out an inclusive position on gay relationships and signaled his acceptance of same-sex marriage. “I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into,” he said.
“We live in a free society and freedom means freedom for everyone,” the candidate said.
He later wrote in his memoirs that he had his daughter Mary and her partner Heather Poe in mind.
But by 2004, Cheney's view would be subordinated by the Republican Party's push for a Federal Marriage Amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage. Mary was deeply troubled. She came “very close” to quitting her job as director of vice presidential operations on the campaign, she says in the book.
Still, she was convinced that Bush and her father were the best men to run the country. But neither she nor Poe sought out public appearances at the nominating convention in New York, where attendees distributed buttons that declared, “One Man. One Woman. Just as God Intended.”
Poe, already camera-averse, said there was no way she would get on stage after Dick Cheney's speech — or the president's — accepting the GOP nomination.
“President Bush could officiate at a gay wedding, and I still wouldn't go up there,” Mary quotes Heather as saying.
In 2005, the couple left Colorado to settle in woodsy Great Falls, buying a $1.3 million Colonial. The Washington Post reported that they moved “in large part so that Cheney could be closer to her family,” including Liz and her children, who then lived in McLean, Va.
Mary worked as an AOL executive while Heather held down the home front, tackling renovations that included tearing out pink shag carpet, Mary told The Post. (Ciulla, the hockey friend, calls Poe a “very, very gifted carpenter.”)
Today Poe is a stay-at-home mom; Mary is a political consultant. Their first child, Sam, was born in 2007, and Sarah Lynne in 2009; parents in their school circles hold them in high regard, Ciulla said.
“They are a very caring and loving couple. They have a stable relationship. I think it's changed some people's minds about what parenting is all about,” she said.
“They have proven to be good ambassadors for us,” added Ciulla, who also is a lesbian.
As for the Cheney sisters, they are displaying a different sort of family behavior, an all too common one: disagreements, sides chosen, silent treatment. Mary and Liz Cheney evidently have not spoken in months. Lynne and Dick Cheney said they were “pained” to see the feud go public, but seemed to side with Liz in a statement.
Poe is said to be very fond of her father-in-law. She spoke to him, in a way, when she posted her comments on Facebook. Despite her zingers against Liz, her admiration for the family patriarch came through in the final line:
“I always thought freedom meant freedom for EVERYONE,” she wrote, right on message.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.