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"Honest Bob" Schaffer teaches Congress about honor and principles

By Dennis Polhill
web posted January 28, 2002

The clamor over Congressman Bob Schaffer's announcement to honor his pledge to serve only three terms in the U.S. House is deafening. One might conclude that integrity among Congressmen is rare.

Bob Schaffer

Schaffer is lambasted by Democrat Party leaders for making the promise and by Republican Party leaders for honoring it. Perhaps both groups can learn about character and principle from Bob. The attacks are reminiscent of those against 'Honest' John Shafroth, 18th governor and foremost political reformer in Colorado history.

'Honest John' was first elected as a Republican to the U.S House in 1894 to oust the Populists. The Populist movement peaked here in 1892, capturing the governorship and 39 of 100 legislative seats. Their crowning achievement was making Colorado the first state to grant Women's Suffrage. Shafroth was a supporter of suffrage and worked tirelessly on its behalf in his later years as Colorado's first elected U.S. Senator.

In 1896, John helped establish the Silver Republican Party in Colorado and won re-election as a 'fusion' candidate with 89.2 per cent. Fusion, no longer allowed, is a mechanism that allows various political parties to name the same candidate, combining their votes. Fusion is outlawed in all but two states to protect the two major political parties from competition. Shafroth won as a fusion Silver Republican/Democrat/Populist candidate again in 1898 and 1900. Ballot box stuffing, bribery, intimidation and other frauds occurred frequently among all parties. After his 1902 election, opponents accused Shafroth supporters of fraudulently influencing his election. He resigned his seat in Congress and was immediately labeled 'Honest John.'

Special interests and party machine politics maintained a chokehold in Colorado, manipulating events to insure that reforms never came. The Democratic machine's plan was to shuffle 'Honest John' to the Colorado Supreme Court where his ideas could do little harm. Though he did not attend as a declared candidate, a backstabbing, machine-controlled convention inadvertently resulted in his nomination for governor in 1908. With one-and-a-half parties working against his election, his reputation as a principled politician helped yield a 52.3 per cent victory.

He began administrative reforms immediately, declaring "economy in the expenditure of money the fundamental principle of good government." Shafroth banned state lobbying; purged duplicate university programs; required daily turnover of bureaucratic fees; reduced meal expenses for state employees; terminated corrupt bureaucrats; and vetoed 'pork barrel' road, agriculture, arts, school and charity legislation.

Party leaders, newspapers and friends pressured 'Honest John' to renege on eight campaign promises: direct election of U.S. Senators, direct primary elections, voter registration, eliminating straight ticket voting, banking reform, reforming the civil service and railway commissions, and implementing initiative and referendum laws. With one-and-a-half parties again working against 'Honest John,' hope for change was scant. Shafroth called a special session for August 9, prior to the November 1910 election. Fearing voter retribution, the General Assembly reluctantly referred initiative and referendum procedures to the ballot. The amendment passed with 75.7 per cent voting "yes." 'Honest John' labeled it "the modern Magna Carta" and "the greatest piece of legislation since the constitution of the state." John was re-elected in 1910 and by the time he left office in 1912, all eight promises had been achieved.

Perpetual presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan spawned a short-lived "Shafroth for President" movement within the Democratic Party in 1912, which ended when Shafroth quickly endorsed Woodrow Wilson. 'Honest John' chose to exercise the new direct primary law by standing for U.S. Senate as a Democrat. Because the U.S. Constitution had not yet been amended to allow direct election of Senators, incumbents and candidates for the General Assembly were asked to pledge, "I hereby declare to the people of Colorado, as well as the people of my legislative district, that during my term of office, I will always vote for the U.S. Senator in Congress who has received the highest number of the people's votes for that office at the general election next preceding the election of a senator in Congress, without regard to my individual preferences." The pledges were maintained at the office of the Secretary of State.

'Honest Bob' Schaffer is an honest man serving in a dishonest institution. The clamor serves as testimony to his integrity and the uniqueness of integrity in politics. Bob's actions bring focus upon the flaws and deficiencies of his lessers. The American people have stated repeatedly their wish for ending corruption in Congress. Punishment of Bob or Colorado by the corrupt ones for having principle is disturbingly likely, but that does not prove that there is no hope for less corruption. Bob Schaffer's critics need to take a hard look inside themselves. 'Honest Bob' sets a high standard for his peers and his successors. As 'Honest Bob' ascends the pedestal of statesmanship, we, the people, thank you, Bob, for being 'Honest Bob.'

Dennis Polhill is a Senior Fellow with the Independence Institute. The Independence Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan Colorado think tank. It is governed by a statewide board of trustees and holds a 501(c)(3) tax exemption from the IRS. Its public policy research focuses on economic growth, education reform, local government effectiveness, and Constitutional rights.

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