Denver Bar Association
January 2002
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Free of Promise

by Craig Eley


Keeping your words even when you wish you never said

By Craig Eley

A politician who kept his promise. This is deserving of comment here because it is so refreshing and so rare. This past November, Congressman Bob Schaffer, who represents northern Colorado, announced that he was keeping his pledge not to run for a fourth term. He made that pledge in 1996 when he was engaged in his first campaign for Congress. Even though he enjoyed the work, is virtually unbeatable in his district and is only 39 years old, he was true to his word.

This is noteworthy, particularly in this state, because at least two prominent Colorado politicians who took term limits pledges reneged on them when it became inconvenient. One of them, a big city mayor, when embroiled in a very difficult first campaign, pledged not to run for a third term if elected. I received a call from one of his supporters when he did run for a third term, asking if I would put a sign for the mayor in my yard. I explained that, in my view, of all the promises a politician can make to the electorate the only one he or she can really have full control over is the promise not to run. Other promises require the cooperation of legislative bodies, budget analysts, and others who can make programs sink or swim. I told the caller I was disappointed that the mayor was breaking his word.

"But the mayor has unfinished business," the campaign worker replied. "Who doesn’t?" I thought. How many officials are voted out of office while having "unfinished business," how many people retire from their jobs with unfinished business and how many of us drop dead with unfinished business? It’s part of the human condition, and is no excuse for breaking a promise.

One of Schaffer’s colleagues in Congress, from a different party than the mayor, took a similar approach. Like Schaffer, this politician spent a number of years in the Colorado legislature before making a successful run for Congress. It wasn’t until he was running for his second term that he pledged to limit the number of times he would run. When his number finally came up, he broke his promise, explaining that when he made his term limits pledge he had not been aware of just how important seniority is in the U.S. House of Representatives.

What struck me about this argument was 1) any 10th grade civics student knows that seniority is everything in Congress; 2) the Colorado legislature has essentially the same emphasis on seniority as does Congress; 3) he made the term limits promise after his first term, during which even the most obtuse representative would presumably have learned something about how Congress operates; and 4) he is a lawyer, and yet came up with an even lamer argument than did the mayor, a non-lawyer. By putting forth such a specious excuse for breaking his word, he not only dishonored himself but insulted the intelligence of those he represents.

Naturally, like the mayor, he was re-elected overwhelmingly, and still warms a chair in the House, although he is hungrily eyeing a seat in the Senate.

A good argument can be made that term limits is a testament to the gullibility of the electorate, who will supposedly elect incumbents repeatedly regardless of how worthy they are. Whether one buys this theory or not, it is beside the point here.

A century ago, in the heat of a campaign, Theodore Roosevelt made a pledge not to run for a second consecutive full term as president. Years later, at the close of his first full term, he was wildly popular, and he undoubtedly thought of himself as not only the best man for the job, but the only man for the job. Yet, he valued his integrity more than he valued being president. The decision not to run was, he admitted, the hardest decision of his life.

An elected official is often a role model for young people— young people who need heroes who are selfless rather than self-serving. While, like Roosevelt, I am sure Schaffer hates stepping down, my guess is that he would hate even more being the type of politician who thinks of himself first. He would probably rather be remembered as an honest man than as just another four-term congressman.

Keeping easy promises is no measure of a person. The true test is how you keep the tough promises, the promises you hate to keep, the promises you are sorry you ever made.

In the final analysis, it’s just a matter of integrity.

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