by Dave Kopel
Rocky Mountain News. July 26, 2008
In the past half-century, there has perhaps been no legislator who is disliked by such a broad, bipartisan coalition of legislators as Douglas Bruce, the state representative from Colorado Springs. His abrasive, uncollegial personality is the opposite of what it takes to make friends at the Capitol - or with the media. That said, the media have been deficient in their handling of a false and vile accusation made against Bruce.
The filing and investigations of sexual harassment charges made against legislators are supposed to be confidential. On May 1, the Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and The Gazette (Colorado Springs) all reported that a sexual harassment complaint had been filed against Bruce. House Speaker Andrew Romanoff had not exactly gone out of his way to preserve confidentiality; he handed the official document to Bruce on the floor of the House, in full view of the press corps.
I would not expect the Statehouse press to ignore the confidential story which Romanoff dropped in their laps. But reporters should have asked Romanoff if he thought that delivering the notice on the floor of the House was consistent with the letter or spirit of the legislature's rules for confidentiality.
Earlier this week, the papers reported Bruce's announcement that, after investigation, the House leadership had written a curt letter to the complainant and Bruce stating that there was "no evidence" to support her allegation.
House rules prevented Bruce from releasing the letter, but he did say that the complainant was "a vicious lobbyist for a liberal cause." The papers don't heed the legislature's confidentiality rules, so the papers should publish the name of the woman who made the false accusation.
Most American papers have a policy of not printing the names of sexual assault victims. But that policy does not extend to people who make false charges. Donors and members of whatever group employs the lobbyist may want to know if the group in the next legislative session will hire somebody more credible.
Likewise, legislators and journalists, who often rely on factual claims made by lobbyists, should know who the person is so that they can take her reliability into account when she makes future assertions to them.
Presuming that the lobbyist sincerely felt she was sexually harassed (by what Bruce describes as a smile from many feet away), legislators, journalists and the public should know about the person's hypersensitivity. I suspect that the false complainant's identity is known to more than a few people at the Capitol and could be discovered with a little diligence from local media.
The best coverage of the issue was on the Caplis & Silverman radio show, which gave Bruce a chance to fully explain his side (far more so than the few sentences he was allowed in the newspapers) and to show off the personality which has made him so unpopular at the Capitol.
Disclosure: I serve on the board of directors of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, which recently wrote a public letter praising Bruce's record on taxpayer issues.
The dog whistle
The Denver papers seem to have missed an interesting local angle to the current presidential race. In Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida, Republican John McCain has been running a TV ad for the past couple weeks showing McCain at a 2007 Republican presidential debate, extolling the military service of non- citizen Hispanic immigrants, and calling them "God's children."
During the speech, the camera cuts away from McCain to then-candidate Tom Tancredo, who looks rather dour. Marc Ambinder, an on-line columnist for The Atlantic, perceptively noted on July 11 that the Tancredo shot is far from unintentional.
The shot is what's known as a "dog whistle" - a political term of art first used in the 1990s in Australia. It means using a phrase (or a picture) that may have little significance to the general audience, but which appeals to a select group which knows the special meaning.
For example, in the 2003 State of the Union, President Bush said, "there's power, wonder-working power, in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people." Just a colorful phrase for some listeners; but many Christians recognized it from the chorus of a hymn: "There is power, power, wonder-working power In the blood of the Lamb."
As Bush dog-whistled Christians who believe that America has a special mission from God, so McCain is dog- whistling pro-illegal alien supporters, who believe Tancredo is the devil incarnate. McCain does not use words to tell the broader audience about his long record of opposition to cracking down on illegal immigration; rather he quietly conveys that position via the Tancredo dog whistle.
The Colorado media should have detailed McCain's two-track messaging and asked Tancredo for his reaction to being dog-whistled.