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Controversies detract from business at hand

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By The Staff

The first three weeks of the 2008 legislative session have been anything but dull. Of course, the vast majority of press coverage has focused on newly minted state Rep. Doug Bruce, R-Colorado Springs, author of the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights (TABOR amendment).

Bruce was appointed to fill a vacant House seat from Colorado Springs in December. He refused to be sworn in until five days after the session began, reasoning that if he held out past the midpoint of the 2007-2009 term, he could legally run for four more terms instead of just three. During that time, the people of his district had no representative in the state House. Controversy ensued.

Things escalated when Bruce missed an appointment set by the speaker of the House to be sworn in at 8 a.m. Jan. 14. Bruce demanded that he be sworn in at 10 a.m., saying he had prepared remarks and expected to deliver them while the full House was sitting in session — and besides, he didn’t want to get up that early. The speaker pointed out that traditionally new members don’t address the full House when they’re sworn in. Controversy ensued.

On the morning of the standoff, Rep.-elect Bruce was present in the House chamber. During the morning prayer, a photographer from the Rocky Mountain News snapped his photo, prompting Bruce to kick the journalist (not a very hard kick, but enough to cause the man to drop his camera). The incident was caught on tape by Channel 7 News. Controversy ensued.

Following the incident, Republican and Democratic leadership in the House appointed an ethics panel to study whether House rules of decorum were violated and, if so, what should be done. After a lengthy hearing, the panel, consisting of three Democrats and three Republicans, unanimously recommended that the full House censure Bruce for his actions. Bruce (who had finally been sworn in at this point) responded by demanding an apology from the photographer for taking his picture during a prayer. More controversy ensued.

Last Thursday, the full House acted on the recommendation of the panel, voting 62-1 to censure Bruce. In his defense, Bruce compared himself to Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” citing a scene in which Stewart’s character is set up by his political enemies and then attacks them in a violent outburst. Yet more controversy ensued.

Since a number of folks have asked, here’s my reaction to this series of bizarre and unfortunate events.

It’s irresponsible to allow 70,000 people to go unrepresented in the legislature for five days just because you want to run for four terms instead of three, and it’s comically selfish to expect state government to grind to a halt so you can be sworn in with an extra degree of fanfare.

As for the media, reporters and cameramen are the eyes and ears of the public, and they’re always watching public figures — even when they pray. Elected officials know that when they sign up for the job. Two years ago another representative fainted on the floor of the House, and the first instinct of the photographer nearest her wasn’t to call 911 or render aid, but to take a picture. I’m not condoning that — it’s just the way things are.

Even if the media provoke a public figure, he can’t just haul off and kick somebody —period, full stop. Our kids are watching. If elected officials can’t live by the same rules as kindergartners, heaven help us.

These events may be dismissed as trivial distractions, but in fact they’ve consumed a good deal of energy and time that could be devoted to more important work. Many interesting proposals are being discussed, and in my view all of that ink and airtime would be better spent covering those subjects. It’s time to move on.

Rob Witwer is the state representative for House District 25, which encompasses the Evergreen area and most of western Jefferson County.