Joel Hefley: Congressman for Life 

Big Business, the Pentagon and fellow Beltway politicians love Joel Hefley. But a man of the people, he is not.

"I will be a congressman for only a short period of my life."

The words were those of Joel Hefley, the Republican representative from Colorado's 5th Congressional District. The year was 1995, and Hefley had already been in Washington for more than eight years.

Seven years later, Hefley is still in office and seeking yet another term, his ninth. As the senior member of Colorado's congressional delegation, he has evolved into a consummate Beltway insider -- one who knows all the rules, all the tricks and all the right people.

Yet despite his seniority and expertise, Hefley -- once labeled one of the 10 most obscure members of Congress -- has yet to make a major mark on national politics. And as he has become increasingly entrenched in Washington, there are several signs that he has become decreasingly connected with his rank-and-file constituents.

He hardly ever holds town-hall meetings in his home district anymore. He was the last member of Congress to put up a Web site and to enable constituents to contact him via e-mail. He rarely talks to the local press and turned down repeated requests for an interview for this story -- even when a reporter traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with him. And when he decided to run for re-election this year, he didn't even bother to make a public appearance to announce it.

Supporters say the staunchly conservative Hefley may be low-profile, but they insist he's effective in representing his district's interests. Critics, meanwhile, say Hefley has grown complacent and out of touch.

Others say he is merely symptomatic of an electoral system in which the vast majority of congressional seats are designed to be "safe" -- meaning that incumbents have such large voter-registration advantages, they're virtually assured re-election and therefore see no need to, as one observer put it, "put on a song and dance" for their constituents.

With an overwhelming Republican voter-registration edge in his district, which includes El Paso, Teller, Fremont, Park, Chaffee and Lake counties, Hefley is considered to have one of the safest congressional seats in the country.

"Joel plays exactly the role you would expect of someone who sits in a very safe seat," said Bob Loevy, a political-science professor at Colorado College, who counts himself among Hefley's supporters. "He is what we political scientists call a careerist. He's quite clearly decided to get in the House of Representatives, stay in the House of Representatives, make a career of being a public servant."

Cowboy, cartoonist, politician

Hefley, 67, has been on the public payroll since 1977, when he was first elected to political office, winning a seat in the state House of Representatives. He served in the state Senate from 1979 until 1986, when he captured the 5th Congressional District seat, which was being vacated by Rep. Ken Kramer, a fellow Republican.

Born and educated in Oklahoma, Hefley had been a cowboy and rancher, and had worked for a community-planning organization, before turning to politics. He also raises quarter horses and is an accomplished cartoonist.

Hefley's friends say he's personable, with a sense of humor. But others say he can be thin-skinned and has a tendency to hold grudges. He regularly refuses to speak with the Independent, saying the newspaper has "trashed" him in the past. And when Kramer, his predecessor, considered making a comeback by challenging Hefley in 1988, Hefley was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, "Ken Kramer is no longer a friend of mine."

"He has a very vicious personality," said Bill Hughes, a former Republican state senator from Palmer Lake, who challenged Hefley in the 1996 GOP primary. "If you say anything negative [about Hefley], he will do his best to crush you."

In his first congressional election, Hefley trounced his Democratic opponent, Bill Story, by more than 2-1. Since then, the Democratic Party has fielded largely token candidates against him, and Hefley has never received less than 66 percent of the votes cast. He ran completely unopposed in 1994, and the Democrats also failed to field a candidate in 2000.

Solid conservative

Hefley struggled to make an impact during his first eight years in Washington, when the Democratic Party controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But since the GOP swept into power in 1994, he began passing legislation and gradually advanced through party ranks to serve as chairman of several subcommittees.

He has established himself as a solid conservative who regularly advocates cutting taxes and government spending -- except when it comes to the military, where he consistently favors spending more money. That has earned him high ratings from conservative groups such as the National Taxpayers Union, but more mixed ratings over the years from the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group that advocates a balanced federal budget.

He has also earned top ratings from anti-abortion groups, the Christian Coalition, and organizations representing business, defense and gun owners, but abysmal ratings from pro-choice groups, labor unions, and organizations advocating for civil rights, civil liberties, environmental protection, public health and consumer interests.

The Children's Defense Fund last year rated him as one of the "worst House members for children," citing his votes against health insurance for uncovered children and increased funding for Head Start, child-care and reading programs, and his vote to cut federal aid to local school districts.

Still, while Hefley votes with the GOP leadership more than 90 percent of the time, he's not a rigid ideologue.

Though environmental groups generally decry his record, Hefley, an avid fisherman, earlier this year introduced a bill to limit bottom trawling, a commercial fishing technique that damages sensitive ocean habitats. And he has recently won praise from environmentalists for working with Congressman Mark Udall, a Boulder Democrat, to sponsor wildfire legislation that would direct the U.S. Forest Service to concentrate its forest-thinning efforts near developed areas.

Much of his legislation, however, tends to be more mundane, with many bills focusing on management of federal lands and benefits for veterans.

While Hefley is generally a free-marketeer, he broke with the Republican majority in 2000 and voted against permanent normalized trade relations with China, citing concerns about the country's human-rights record. He also voted in 1999 to impose quotas on imported steel, to protect U.S. producers.

Those votes drew scorn from the CATO Institute, a Washington-based free-trade think tank, which labeled him an "isolationist."

"He has been disappointing on trade issues," said Dan Griswold, a CATO spokesman.

Hefley is also willing to set aside his budget-cutting, free-market philosophy when it might benefit his home district. He constantly urges increased spending on the five military installations in the district. And in 2000, when the Pentagon proposed seeking competitive bids on utility contracts at its installations, Hefley introduced a measure to make sure Colorado Springs Utilities, a city-owned company, would maintain a local monopoly on utility work at Fort Carson.

Not a showboat

While his overall record has earned him a reputation as a reliable conservative foot soldier, Hefley has yet to make a national name for himself after almost 16 years in office. In 1994, the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call declared him one of the 10 most "obscure" members of Congress, and most colleagues still describe him as quiet and low-key.

"He's not a showboat," said Rep. Curt Weldon, a Republican from Pennsylvania, who serves with Hefley on the Armed Services Committee.

"He's not one that goes out waving flags and issuing press releases," said Rep. Bob Schaffer, a Republican from Colorado's 4th District, in the northern part of the state.

Inside the halls of Congress, however, those who know Hefley say he's respected, hardworking, effective, knowledgeable, decent, fair and personable.

"Joel is one of my favorite members of the delegation," said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Colorado's 1st District, which encompasses Denver. Though the two have sharply different political philosophies, DeGette says Hefley often works with her -- and other members of the state delegation -- on issues of significance to Colorado as a whole.

"He's very fair and he's also very evenhanded," DeGette said. "He never will take a low hit at me just because I'm a Democrat."

Hefley's affable style may, however, be one of the reasons he hasn't landed a chairmanship on any major, coveted committee, which would give him considerable power to decide whether certain bills make it to a vote. Several observers speculate that Hefley might lack the ruthless ambition needed to prevail in party caucuses, where chairmanships are decided.

"The politics inside the caucus groups are intense, sharp-elbowed," noted Rep. Udall. "What's the old adage -- 'Good guys finish last'?"

His only chairmanship -- on the House Ethics Committee -- is one that no member of Congress wants, because it involves investigating and punishing colleagues who violate ethics rules. Even Hefley himself expressed disappointment upon receiving the assignment last year.

"It's arguably the most hated post in the entire House of Representatives," said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, which monitors the committee's work. "Everybody avoids it like the plague."

A lack of ambition also appeared evident when, in 1996, Hefley passed up an opportunity to run for a U.S. Senate seat being vacated by fellow Republican Hank Brown. Running for the Senate would have meant abandoning a safe seat to seek a highly competitive one, and Hefley would have had to campaign extensively and raise large amounts of money.

Hefley's backers, however, argue that he serves his constituency best by focusing on the interests of his district. While he doesn't chair a major committee, he has chaired important Armed Services subcommittees, which helps him look after the military installations in his district. He's currently the chairman of the Subcommittee on Military Readiness.

"He's worked hard at having the committee chairmanships that relate to his district," noted Loevy.

Bringing home the bacon

Hefley's style has won him the unwavering support of local power brokers, who are happy that he's content to focus on serving them.

"He takes care of the important 'home folks' first," observed Loevy. "He takes care of the military and the business community, and the people who are the movers and shakers."

Jeff Crank, vice president for military affairs at the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, said Hefley is a solid ally.

"When we go to Washington, he gives us an enormous amount of time," said Crank, a former member of Hefley's staff. "He's someone that we can talk to, and he'll listen to us."

Like many others, Crank lists the retention of Fort Carson, the Springs area's largest employer, as Hefley's single greatest accomplishment. The Army installation was considered a prime candidate to be shut down during a series of nationwide military base closings in the early 1990s. Hefley's supporters credit him with lobbying the Pentagon to keep it open.

"I don't think Joel will ever get as much credit as he deserves for keeping Fort Carson here," Crank said. "I don't give Joel 100 percent of the credit, but I give him an awful lot."

Hefley has also helped land new facilities for the Air Force Space Command and the Army Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, and he played a role in making sure Peterson was chosen as the location for the new Northern Command, Crank said. The congressman is currently working with the Chamber on a proposal to expand Pueblo Reservoir in order to get more water to Colorado Springs, Crank added.

Tom Huffman, chairman of the all-Republican El Paso County Board of Commissioners, said Hefley also works closely with local government. For example, when commissioners were worried about safety conditions on a county access road at Schriever Air Force Base, Hefley helped get federal dollars to upgrade it, Huffman said.

"He's been real good for us," Huffman said.

Loevy says that as long as Hefley keeps the local movers and shakers happy, he doesn't need to do much else.

"He really doesn't need to go beyond that," Loevy said. "It actually serves his interests not to go beyond that."

Others, however, say Hefley could use his safe position to become a bold leader who can actually carry out the smaller-government agenda that he claims to advocate.

"He comes from such a strong Republican district that he should have the freedom to really make a difference," said Hughes, the former state Senator, who challenged Hefley in the 1996 primary. Instead, Hughes said, "He's just a typical Beltway politician."

Left an orphan

Though his approach has largely been successful, Hefley has stumbled a few times along the way.

One example is Hughes' 1996 challenge, which illustrates that Hefley wasn't always a favorite of the military and the local GOP establishment. In a minor insurrection, Hughes won more than 30 percent of the votes at the party's nominating assembly, giving him a spot on the primary ballot alongside Hefley.

Hughes, who now lives in Florida, recalled that he ran against Hefley because "I kind of thought he had lost touch with the people in his district." Hefley, he said, "kind of made his district an orphan. [He] went to D.C., and you never heard from him again."

Hughes wasn't the only local Republican who felt that way. Several prominent party members backed Hughes against Hefley, including state Reps. Bill Martin, Marcy Morrison and Richard Decker, and state Sens. Ray Powers and Mary Ellen Epps.

"Several of us thought at the time that Hefley wasn't doing much," recalled Martin, who ran Hughes' campaign, in a recent interview.

Powers agreed. "We invited [Hefley] to several affairs, and he didn't show up," Powers recalled. "We felt we didn't have a congressman."

Contrary to Crank's assessment, many felt Hefley wasn't working very hard to save Fort Carson. "Some people in the military didn't feel like he was doing enough," Decker said.

Though Fort Carson stayed open, Martin says he doesn't think Hefley had much influence in the matter.

Another major reason for the insurrection was Hefley's opposition to political term limits. Voters in El Paso County, and many prominent Republicans, had strongly supported term limits in a statewide referendum held in 1990. But when congressional term limits came up for a House vote in 1995, Hefley -- a former term-limits supporter -- voted against them.

That drew the ire of fellow Republican John Suthers, then the 4th Judicial District Attorney, who had served as El Paso County chairman of the statewide term-limits initiative. In an opinion piece published in The Gazette, Suthers excoriated Hefley for his vote.

"Your dramatic change of heart on term limits during your five terms in Congress seems less attributable to your conscience than it does to a brain overcome by Potomac fever," Suthers fumed against the congressman.

Suthers may have had other reasons to be upset about Hefley's position. He had openly discussed the possibility of seeking Hefley's seat if the congressman were to resign.

Suthers, now the U.S. attorney for Colorado, did not return messages seeking comments for this story.

Hefley initially defended his position, writing in The Gazette that he opposed term limits for philosophical reasons and felt the need to vote his conscience, even if his constituents supported term limits.

"I would have little respect for myself if I violated a basic belief just because the pressure is on," Hefley wrote. "The truth is, the people don't want me to be just another wishy-washy politician who doesn't have the courage to stand for what he believes in."

But the next month, Hefley -- apparently sensing that he might lose his party's support in the 1996 elections -- caved to the pressure and said he would support term limits the next time it came up for a vote, even though he was still philosophically opposed.

All of the Republicans who backed Hughes in 1996 say they've been happy with Hefley since.

"He got the message," said Powers. "I'm sure of that."

Hughes himself is the exception.

"He has immersed himself in the values of Washington, D.C., and the Beltway," he said of Hefley. "To me, that's the biggest problem with politicians today."

The Hefley Amendment

In Washington, meanwhile, Hefley's biggest misstep came during one of the rare occasions when he rose above obscurity and placed himself in the midst of a divisive, national debate.

In 1998, he introduced a "rider" to an appropriations bill, which became known as the Hefley Amendment. The amendment, strongly backed by Focus on the Family president and Colorado Springs resident James Dobson, sought to overturn an executive order by President Clinton, who had banned discrimination against gays in the federal workforce.

Hefley said at the time that he expected strong support for the measure in the Republican-controlled House. But the Log Cabin Republicans, a group advocating equal rights for gays, mobilized against it.

The group warned Hefley and his supporters that they would face a huge, divisive fight within the GOP, and advised them to drop the amendment for the good of the party, recalls Kevin Ivers, a Log Cabin spokesman.

Hefley refused. The Log Cabin Republicans proceeded to get more than 60 Republican House members to not only vote against the measure, but to speak against it on the floor. The amendment lost on a 252-176 vote.

Hefley and his backers "so totally misread the politics of this that they were totally stunned when it was defeated," Ivers recalled.

But it was really quite simple, Ivers says. Republicans in moderate or competitive districts didn't want to alienate voters with such an outright attack against gays. In fact, many of them were angry with Hefley for forcing them to take a public position on such a divisive issue.

In the end, Hefley spent a lot of political capital and lost.

"This really was an effort driven by people who were out of touch with the times," Ivers said.

Soft on offenders

More recently, Hefley was briefly in the national spotlight when the Ethics Committee held hearings on the conduct of the flamboyant Rep. Jim Traficant, a Democrat from Ohio, who had been convicted in a federal court on corruption charges. Congress ended up expelling Traficant.

Local backers have lauded Hefley's performance in the Traficant case. And The Denver Post, in an editorial, said it was "proud" of Hefley's "unflappable conduct" in the face of Traficant's "boorish behavior."

But congressional watchdog groups have blasted the Ethics Committee's record during Hefley's tenure, saying it is soft on most offenders.

While Hefley has been a member, the Ethics Committee has refused to go after several members of Congress who were clearly guilty of ethical violations, charges Ruskin, of the Congressional Accountability Project. And when the committee does investigate a member, it usually issues only a mild punishment, such as a "letter of rebuke."

"He's been doing much more to prevent investigations than to do them," Ruskin said of Hefley. "His job is to ferret out corruption in the House of Representatives, and he just has done a pathetic job."

The Ethics Committee has been a paper tiger, operating under a tacit understanding that members of the House should cover each other's backs, since long before Hefley joined, Ruskin says. But Hefley could have used his position as chairman to give the committee some teeth, Ruskin argues. Instead, "He's just doing what the good old boys want."

Hefley has also compromised his own ethics, Ruskin alleges. In 1999, while Hefley was heading a subcommittee investigating charges of corruption against Congressman Bud Shuster, he received a legislative favor from Shuster. Using his position as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Schuster secured a ban on commercial flights at Centennial Airport in Arapahoe County -- a ban Hefley had long supported on behalf of some of his northernmost constituents.

Hofstra University Professor Monroe Freedman, a nationally renowned expert on legal ethics, publicly accused Hefley of having a "blatant and egregious" conflict of interest in the matter.

Ruskin notes that Hefley could have avoided the conflict of interest by following the relatively common practice of appointing an outside special counsel to investigate Shuster.

But Hefley rejected requests to do so. And while his committee eventually found that Shuster had received improper gifts from a transportation lobbyist, its only punishment was a rebuke calling Shuster a "discredit" to Congress.

Ruskin says he's also not impressed by Hefley's performance in the Traficant case. The committee's job was made easy by the fact that Traficant already had been convicted in a federal court, Ruskin observes.

"The investigation was already done," Ruskin said. "The jury found him guilty. ... All the action was done before [Hefley] got this thing."

Luddite no more

As Hefley appears to be coasting toward yet another term, there are several signs that he remains content with staying mostly out of sight.

His interaction with constituents in recent years has been minimal, in comparison with most fellow members of Congress.

Last year, after being ridiculed as a Luddite in the national press, Hefley broke down and became the last member of Congress to put up a Web site, and enable constituents to send him e-mail.

Hefley, who represents one of the most high-tech districts in the country, said he didn't want to be inundated with messages from special-interest groups and people outside his district. He told Federal Computer Week that he favored a more "personal touch" with his constituents.

"We do an awful lot of town meetings," Hefley was quoted as saying. "A lot [of other congressmen] have given those up."

But when asked recently, a spokeswoman for Hefley couldn't cite the last time the congressman had held a town meeting in his district.

"If it wasn't in February, it might have been [a year ago] July," said the spokeswoman, Sarah Shelden. She added, "He doesn't hold town hall meetings with a lot of frequency."

In contrast, the other members of Colorado's congressional delegation hold regular town meetings in their home districts. Schaffer, for example, hosts a "Breakfast with Bob" every Monday.

Hefley is also rarely cited by the local press. He routinely refuses to comment for any news stories in the Independent. And when he decided to run for re-election this year, the only public announcement was a vague statement by Shelden in The Gazette, which quoted her as saying "all indications are that he's in it for a minimum of at least another term."

Meanwhile, voters looking to learn about Hefley through Project Vote Smart, a bipartisan, online voter-education service whose founders include former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, have also been disappointed.

In 2000, Hefley refused to respond to the Project's National Political Awareness Test, a questionnaire that is sent to every member of Congress asking them to state their positions on important issues. Prominent Republicans wrote Hefley letters urging him to respond, without success.

Adelaide Elm, a spokeswoman for Project Vote Smart, said the questionnaire isn't just a way to learn where politicians stand on the issues, but is also an important test of their accessibility.

"If we can't get them to provide this information," said Elm, "then the average citizen isn't likely to be able to get it."

Added Elm, "If [politicians] don't want to let people know how they'll handle these issues, then they shouldn't be applying for the job."

His moneyed friends

Hefley, however, appears unworried about how voters perceive him. He is barely campaigning, having raised less than $39,000 -- a paltry amount for a Congressional campaign -- according to data posted by the Center for Responsive Politics last month.

He has hardly bothered to seek contributions from individual voters within his district. In fact, according to the Center's figures, he had landed only two such donations. Most individual donations came from the Washington, D.C. area, New Jersey and Denver. Several of the donations were from executives of WorldCom, the now-bankrupt telecommunications giant under investigation for fraud.

Almost half of Hefley's money came from political-action committees, most of them corporate. The vast majority were from defense contractors, communications companies, oil and gas companies, financial-services companies and the health-care industry.

Of all his campaign contributions, a whopping 81 percent came from outside Colorado.

And Hefley doesn't even see the need to actually spend all of the money on campaigning. According to his expense reports, he has used campaign funds on such things as airfare for his wife, Colorado Rep. Lynn Hefley, and membership dues at the Capitol Hill Club, a posh private club in Washington.

A spokeswoman for his re-election campaign, Sam Schafer, did not return messages seeking comment on those expenditures.

Hefley may be safe in spending his campaign cash on club dues, considering that his closest opponent in terms of fund-raising, Libertarian candidate Biff Baker, has raised only $10,000, according to the most recent data.

Baker, however, has promised a tough race, as has the Democratic candidate, Curtis Imrie, a filmmaker and donkey breeder from Buena Vista, who has raised no money.

Baker has zeroed in on Hefley's low-profile, out-of-sight style, accusing the congressman of being unresponsive and ineffective.

"His community involvement is zilch," Baker said.

Imrie says he's running against the entire political system, which he considers to be corrupted by corporate money, and points out Hefley's acceptance of contributions from WorldCom. Hefley also received $350 from another discredited corporation, Enron, in 1990.

"All the corrupt corporations that we're hammering now are the folks who are bribing Joel Hefley," Imrie said.

Hefley, meanwhile, doesn't seem to take his opponents seriously. He has specifically refused to debate Baker, saying the Libertarian isn't a worthy contender.

In the end, the consensus of most observers is that barring divine intervention, Hefley can probably count on receiving his congressional salary for as long as he chooses.

"I think Joel is going to continue to serve as long as he feels physically fit and wants to do it," said Loevy, the CC professor. "And, of course, it is completely in the interests of the 5th District of Colorado for him to do that."

Rating Joel Hefley
How key special-interests groups rate Joel Hefley's performance:

Thumbs Up

Christian Coalition, 100%
National Right to Life Committee, 100%
National Rifle Association, A
John Birch Society, 85%
U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 84%
National Taxpayers Union, 78%

Thumbs Down

NAACP, 36%
AFL-CIO, 18%
League of Conservation Voters, 7%
American Civil Liberties Union, 0%
National Education Association, 0%
Planned Parenthood, 0%

(Source: Project Vote Smart. Ratings are from 2001 and 2000)

Hefley's Bills
Sample legislation introduced by Hefley during the 107th Congress

Allow federal court proceedings to take place in Colorado Springs

Launch a study for a Cold War memorial

Give tax exemptions to civilian Defense Department employees serving in combat zones

Issue airport security screeners security badges identifying them by fingerprint or retinal recognition

Use government revenues from mineral leasing to pay for environmental restoration and waste management

Destroy records submitted during gun-purchase background checks, if the buyer passes the check

Make it easier to deploy military aircraft to fight wildfires

Require the POW-MIA flag to be flown at Washington war memorials

Establish a national veterans' cemetery in Colorado Springs

Build medical facilities for veterans at the Fitzsimons complex in Aurora

(Source: Library of Congress)

Paying the Piper
Hefley's top-six contributors in the 2002 congressional race

WorldCom Inc.: $2,500
American Maritime Officers: $2,000
Connell Co.: $2,000
Goodrich Corp.: $2,000
Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers: $2,000
Patton Boggs (lobbyist/law firm): $1,888

(Source: Center for Responsive Politics, most recent data available as of 9/26/02)


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