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Wagging the Dog 

When handlers talk, candidates balk, voters walk

Say hello to Ed Jones. He wants to be your state Senator.

You probably don't know him. But you should know the important distinction between him and Tony Marino, who is running against Jones in the Nov. 5 election: Tony Marino is happy to talk with the press and the public. Ed Jones isn't.

During this race, Jones has largely refused to give the press any interviews, outside of the perfunctory primary election night television sound bites. His aversion to the public he seeks to serve began during this summer's Republican primary, when he ran against Tim Pleasant.

Pleasant, considered an ultraconservative, was widely accessible and appeared at forums that were sponsored by both civic groups as well as GOP functions. Meanwhile, Jones refused to appear at candidates' forums -- even those sponsored by Republican Party clubs.

Though he has been an elected county commissioner for eight years, Jones speaks mainly through a paid spokesman.

Political strategists note a troubling trend.

"These people aren't running the local dime store," said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University. "They're public officials, and they're supposed to communicate with the public."

Denver political analyst Eric Sondermann said experience has taught him that there are two kinds of candidates, and two kinds of operatives.

"They are as different as night and day, red wine and white wine," Sondermann said. "It's whether you view the press and media as important intermediaries and allies ... or approach them as adversaries and with the utmost caution, if you approach them at all."

Spinning stories

Longtime local Republican activist Bob Gardner, who is orchestrating Jones' campaign as well as fielding any requests for interviews, has offered up myriad explanations for his candidate's inaccessibility.

"It's just good campaign practice," Gardner said in July.

More recently, Gardner provided another explanation for Jones' absence: "We have gotten to the point in this campaign where just about every minute and every hour of the day is scheduled, so as much as anything else, it's a scheduling thing."

In addition, Gardner says, it's more "good campaign practice" that Jones should not be expected to answer reporters' unexpected questions "on the fly."

"Anyone being interviewed by a reporter is well advised to listen closely to the question and think carefully about the answer," Gardner said.

Though most politicians, whether it be President George W. Bush or El Paso County Coroner Dr. David Bowerman, routinely answer impromptu questions from reporters, Gardner said Jones -- who after eight years in office is supposed to be a seasoned representative -- prefers to respond to questions "in a reasoned fashion."

Even Colorado Springs' daily newspaper has quoted Gardner speaking on behalf of Jones on county government issues, though Jones -- not Gardner -- is the elected county commissioner.

Ironically, just two months ago Gardner, using the Independent as an example, noted how savvy candidates and politicians could use the media to their advantage by spinning favorable and unfavorable stories that appear in a given newspaper.

"If the story is negative, [the candidate] can just say, well, what do you expect? It's the Independent," Gardner said. "And if the story is positive, [the candidate] can say, 'Look, even the Independent agrees with me.'"

Recently, Jones, responding to growing pressure, agreed to appear at another upcoming candidates' forum sponsored by Citizens Project, the Independent, Adelphia Cable, the League of Women Voters, the Black Chamber of Commerce and a host of other civic sponsors. In addition, Gardner maintains that Jones has agreed to at least one debate with Marino, though no details have been finalized.

The question that we'd like to ask Jones -- but can't -- is if he's elected to the state Senate, will he continue to filter public queries through his political handlers to explain his positions on official legislative business?

And will Jones, if he's elected, allow Gardner to accompany him to Denver to articulate his positions from the Senate floor?

Allard's protg

Another stealth candidate, Jim Bensberg, has taken a strictly hands-off approach this year as well. Bensberg, a Republican, is running against Democrat Dean Tollefson for the county commissioner seat being vacated by Jones. And when it comes to the media and bipartisan public appearances, Bensberg has also been a no-show.

Bensberg, a former Washington lobbyist before he moved to Colorado Springs, most recently worked for U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard as the senator's district area representative. He has been endorsed by the pro-development special interest groups in town, including the Chamber of Commerce, the developers lobby and the Realtors lobby.

What Bensberg's promised to do for them -- if he's elected -- only he, they and God know. That's because, if his brief record in the public spotlight is any indicator, the rest of us won't be hearing from him much.

During his primary campaign, Bensberg refused to talk with the press, refused to complete a widely distributed Citizens Project questionnaire and failed to attend the city's only bipartisan forum.

Bensberg's tack is curious. Particularly since his former boss, Allard, was prompted to enter politics because as a private citizen he was frustrated over the lack of responsiveness he got from his elected officials -- starting at the county government level, said his spokesman Sean Conway.

"One of the things [Allard's] always told us as a staff, and as a rule, we meet with everyone, we have an open door. It's an entire philosophy ... to be extremely accessible," Conway said.

In the 12 years he's worked for Allard, Conway says, "I've never been told by Sen. Allard not to return a phone call. Our job as an elected official is to communicate with the media, regardless of what his personal feelings are."

Conway declined to comment on Bensberg's refusal to respond to media queries, attend candidates' forums or fill out questionnaires. "He's running his own race."

County Commissioner Chairman Tom Huffman was also stymied by Bensberg's refusal to talk to the media.

"I don't think it's my position to make a judgment," said Huffman, a fellow Republican. "I can't tell him what to do, just what I do."

This week, after Conway and Huffman were contacted for this story, Bensberg finally returned a call from the Independent. During the call, Bensberg insisted that he planned to attend an upcoming Citizens Project forum, as well as fill out their candidates' questionnaire.

However, when a reporter attempted to ask Bensberg whether he would continue to be accessible if elected, the candidate hung up.

Won't play anymore

Katy Atkinson, a Denver Republican strategist, says that to her knowledge, it's not a common campaign strategy to avoid the media.

Rather, she said, most strategists discourage candidates from antagonizing the press.

"You don't pick a fight with someone who buys their ink by the barrel," Atkinson said. "You should always return calls from the press, even if it's members of the press that you don't think have been fair to you.

"There's always more to lose by not being responsive than there is by being responsive."

However, not all politicians heed that advice.

"Politicians of both parties -- but my party, it seems, more so than others -- tend to whine about the treatment they think they get from the press, and think that, 'Well, if I'm not going to get fair treatment, I'm not even going to bother to return the call.' "

Allard's spokesman Conway noted the downside to shying away from the press and public: "If you're not returning phone calls or giving your point of view, then who is?"

And in a broader perspective, says strategist Sondermann, accessibility is not determined along party lines. "Left of center or right of center, it's the same," he said. "It's not an ideological thing at all."

Sondermann cited two well-known Colorado political mainstays -- former Gov. Dick Lamm, a Democrat, and Colorado Springs developer and onetime GOP gubernatorial candidate Steve Schuck -- whose memorable candor and honesty while discussing their worldviews sometimes got them in trouble.

By contrast, Sondermann said, "Some just hold the press at arms length and only deal with them in the most scripted way."

Straayer, who has published a book about the Colorado Legislature, agrees that many politicians' inaccessibility has more to do with their individual personalities than any orchestrated party strategy.

Enhanced by competition

But when candidates face scarce competition -- as in El Paso County -- Sondermann noted that candidates shrink further from the spotlight.

"It removes some incentive for people to deal with media types or huge numbers of constituency groups," he said, adding, "I'm a believer that almost any political setting is enhanced by competition."

In El Paso County, where every local and legislative partisan seat is currently held by Republicans, the politicians who make themselves accessible and those who hide -- at least from the Independent as well as bipartisan forums -- is about evenly split.

Of El Paso County's 12-member legislative delegation, state Sen. Doug Lamborn and Rep. Keith King -- both considered ultraconservatives -- have proven to be readily available for press interviews.

Speaking by cell phone from Nebraska last week, King, who is seeking re-election in House District 21 on the city's southwest side, said, "I've always tried to respond to whoever calls, and whatever issue they want to talk about. I always try and call back and make sure that they get my opinions. ... I do whatever I can to be accessible."

Open debate through the media and other forums, King says, is vital to the political process.

"There's typically two sides to a story," King said. "Politics is a competition of ideas. ... I like openly discussing ideas, because sometimes you get a perspective on an issue that you haven't seen before, and you also have a chance to put your ideas out there and see how people like them or dislike them."

El Paso County Republican Reps. Richard Decker and Mark Cloer have also proven to be easily accessible to reporters and members of the public. Decker, who is seeking re-election in House District 19 in the southeast part of the county, said he believes in being accessible because "it's part of my belief that I should always be honest." In addition, he noted, as an elected official, it is his "obligation" to be available to the public, both directly and through the media.

Super-thin skin

Other politicians are much more finicky.

"Some of it's just personal," Straayer said. "There are some people with extraordinarily thin skin, and if they don't get written what they want in the paper, they're just like little children 'I won't talk to you anymore; I won't play with you anymore.'"

Sometimes, a politician may carry a grudge against an individual reporter, Straayer says. "I've heard that in the capitol -- sometimes members don't like what a particular reporter writes, so they won't talk to that reporter anymore."

For example, three-term state Rep. Bill Sinclair, who is seeking a fourth term representing the people of north-central Colorado Springs, adamantly refuses interview requests from Independent Editor Cara DeGette. Specifically, he says, he was insulted by a Jan. 13, 2000 article authored by her that characterized him as a "kindly elderly gentleman who holds the elevator doors open for women" at the state capitol in Denver.

However, when it comes to any other reporter at the Independent, Sinclair says he believes it's critical to communicate.

"I personally believe that I should make myself available to any member of the press or the media," Sinclair said. "Because, no matter what their position is, that's the way the democracy in our country works. ... If we start picking and choosing who we're going to let have our views, we're starting to attack the foundational responsibility of the media and -- more specifically, in terms of the Constitution -- of the press."

It can be hard, Sinclair said, "to communicate with some element of the media that's constantly attacking you. But that's part of the game with being in public office. You don't have much choice, really."

The half-melted popsicle

The Independent certainly isn't the only media outlet that some elected officeholders avoid.

For the past several months, Tom Huffman, chairman of the El Paso County Board of Commissioners, has refused interview requests with the city's daily newspaper, citing his dissatisfaction with Pam Zubeck, the reporter assigned to cover the county on a regular basis.

Specifically, Huffman accuses Zubeck of unfair and misleading coverage on a host of topics, ranging from stories about the county's budget shortfalls to personnel issues. Now, Huffman says, he requires all questions from Zubeck to be submitted in writing, and will not respond to them via e-mail because he is suspicious that even those written answers will be used out of context.

Huffman has attempted, he said, to complain to the newspaper's editors. "They treat me like I'm a kid calling to complain about a half-melted popsicle."

And, though Huffman's views and actions have been covered at times critically in news stories in the Independent, the commissioner says he has no qualms talking to this newspaper: "I just feel you're more ethical, you have integrity," he said. "All you have to be is truthful; that's all I ask."

Huffman pointed out that he has come to expect that he, and other officeholders, will take hits, particularly in opinion columns that appear in the weekly newspaper.

"But when it comes to legitimate reporting in articles, you do a pretty good job scrubbing it," Huffman said of the Independent. "I just think that you guys are more honest with where you are and where you're coming from."

A bad rap

By contrast, Lynn Hefley, a Republican seeking reelection in House District 20, makes a point of not speaking with the Independent. Reached by phone at her home, she briefly explained why, before ending the conversation, saying she had to leave for an appointment.

"I have had a bad rap with the Independent, always," Hefley said. "I don't even talk to Independent reporters, just because they never ever tell it the way that you say it."

Rep. Dave Schultheis, a Republican running for re-election in House District 22, routinely ignores calls from the Independent. He also refused to comment for this story, though a spokesman, Dave Crater, left a voice-mail message explaining Schultheis' position.

The paper's reporters "basically haven't treated him honestly" in the past, Crater maintained. "He just doesn't feel like you all take a legitimate approach to the news."

Some lawmakers take a more ambivalent approach.

Rep. Bill Cadman, a Republican running for reelection in House District 15, has a mixed record of returning calls to the Independent. Cadman says it's often a matter of time.

"I've got a million requests that would take up 24 hours a day," Cadman said. "You have to prioritize where you spend your time. ... You get 24 hours to divide between family and work and being a representative and the 57 surveys people want you to fill out."

Won't talk to Democrats

Politicians are also split when it comes to attending candidates' forums, debates and other political events. While lawmakers like Cloer, Lamborn, King and Decker participate in most forums, Republican representatives like Hefley, Cadman and Sinclair regularly skip them.

Republican strategist Atkinson notes the different schools of thought over whether to debate or not debate: If a candidate is a clear frontrunner, don't do it. "If no one's ever heard of your opponent, don't help your opponent get any exposure by debating them."

On the other hand, Atkinson noted, allowing the challenger to complain about their opponent not showing up just gives them exposure.

Sinclair says he also tries to show up to most forums and debates, though in July he skipped a Citizens Project event after a similar forum a couple years ago turned him off.

Cadman, meanwhile, acknowledges that officeholders have a responsibility to be accessible to their constituents. However, it's their right to choose a strategy of communication that will do most good or that "promotes our party or that represents our interests," he said.

For his part, Cadman says he will not bother with non-Republican events.

"A lot of forums you could end up at have nothing to do with the constituents who are voting for you, so how does that serve them?" Cadman asked. "Of course, I will go to partisan Republican events. [But] I will not go to partisan Democrat events and speak to Democrats."

When asked whether he would at some point debate his opponents in this fall's election, Cadman said, "I can't promise I will, but also am not saying I won't."

However, Greg Borom, director of the bipartisan political watchdog group Citizens Project, which sponsors forums as well as widely distributed local candidates' surveys, insists that politicians should be accessible to everyone, not just to their core supporters.

"Candidates, if they are elected, are actually accountable to the whole community, not just the people who voted for them," Borom said. "If they're not open and accessible during the campaign, what does that say about them once they're in office?"

Below the radar

Another widespread practice among politicians, said political science professor Straayer, is refusing to answer candidate questionnaires that are commonly submitted by myriad special-interest groups. If an officeholder is from what is considered a "safe" district, he or she may wish to stay below the radar on certain touchy issues, like abortion, Straayer added.

"They think whatever they put in there, it's going to be used against them."

Project Vote Smart, a national, bipartisan voter-education group whose founders include former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, reports a marked increase in the number of politicians who refuse to answer their questionnaires -- including Colorado Springs Congressman Joel Hefley.

A spokeswoman for Project Vote Smart, Adelaide Elm, says political advisers at the national level have an increasing tendency to tell candidates not to answer questionnaires. In 2000, Elm says, the number of politicians responding to Vote Smart's questionnaire was only about 60 percent,

It seems candidates don't want to commit themselves to any positions in writing, she says, because they might be held to them later.

Borom said voters deserve more from candidates than just scripted stump speeches, brochures and advertisements. They need opportunities to compare candidates, "side by side, in an unbiased setting."

Some candidates seem to think they can get away with not being accessible, because "there's a sense that nobody's watching," Borom said. To make them more accessible, "It's going to take the community demanding it from people who are running for office."

Political science professor Straayer says he considers it "unfortunate" when politicians aren't responsive to the press, whose role in the political system is established in the Constitution.

"As a general approach to public life, taking pains to avoid communicating through the media to the public is extremely unfortunate," Straayer said. "It does not serve the public well."

Next week: Meet your congressman, Joel Hefley.


They Speak for You
Call them now and tell them what you think

Candidate Ed Jones
Phone: 520-6444
E-mail: edjones@elpasoco.com
Address: El Paso County Commission, 27 E. Vermijo Ave., Colo. Springs, CO 80903

Candidate Tony Marino
Phone: 633-5800, Ext. 3
E-mail: tony@marinosenate.com
Address: 3116 Springmeadow Drive, Colo. Springs, CO 80906

Candidate Jim Bensberg
Phone: 632-2638
E-mail: ben4commiss@codenet.net
Address: 1155 Westmoreland Road, Colo. Springs, CO 80907

Candidate Dean Tollefson
Phone: 473-1110
E-mail: dtollefson@pcisys.net
Doug Lamborn
Phone: 471-1441
Address: 1155 Kelly Johnson Blvd., Colo. Springs, CO 80920

Sen. Ron May
Phone: 591-2330
E-mail: ronmay@ronmay.org
Address: 6609 Showhorse Ct., Colo. Springs, CO 80922

Sen. Andy McElhany
Phone: 473-9400
Address: 95 W. Boulder St., Colo. Springs, CO 80903

Rep. Bill Sinclair
Phone: 635-8691
E-mail: billsinclair@qwest.net
Address: 3007 Chelton Drive, Colo. Springs, CO 80909

Rep. Bill Cadman
Phone: 570-9300
Address: P.O. Box 76588, Colo. Springs, CO 80970

Rep. Keith King
Phone: 576-6149
E-mail: repkeithking@qwest.net
Address: 4715 Bywood Ct., Colo. Springs, CO 80906

Rep. Richard Decker
Phone: 390-8312
E-mail: richarddecker@qwest.net
Address: 7035 Loveland Terrace, Fountain, CO 80817

Rep. Mark Cloer
Phone: 393-9371
Address: 2575 Astrozon Circle, Colo. Springs, CO 80916

Rep. Dave Schultheis
Phone: 532-0546
E-mail: davidschultheis@qwest.net
Address: 1250 Golden Hills Road, Colo. Springs, CO 80919

Rep. Lynn Hefley
Phone: 598-2871
Address: 1625 W. Woodmen Road, Colo. Springs, CO 80919

  • When handlers talk, candidates balk, voters walk

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