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The Strange Career of Tom Tancredo Congressman Know-Nothing

Congressman Know-Nothing

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

Politicians are a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people. . . .

Abraham Lincoln, 1837

Vanity, conceit and pride can substitute for integrity. Consider Congressman Tom Tancredo.

Mr. Tancredo made headlines when in 1998 as one of Colorado’s lesser political lights he ran for Congress in Colorado’s Sixth Congressional District. Possessed of marginal intellect, he established himself as a credible candidate by joining the know-nothing movement whose mindless mantra said no elected official (especially those in the United States Congress) should hold office for more than three terms. Explaining the theory he said: "We want to reinvigorate the electoral process by introducing people into the system who think of government service as a temporary endeavor, not as a career." He did not know that it was already obvious to many that term limits had not reinvigorated the electoral process. What he did know was that term limits was a great horse to ride in 1998 because of the wide spread support that mindless proposition enjoyed among many like-minded voters. He was right. In 1998 he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. During his six years in Congress he learned that his word was not his bond. It took him a while to learn that, however.

As recently as 2001 he still thought a promise was a promise. In an interview with the Rocky Mountain News in May, 2001, he was asked about his three-term limit pledge. His head had not yet swelled with thoughts of self-importance that were soon to replace honor. Speaking of his pledge, he said: "I have no plans to break the pledge. It’s my intent to serve out my three terms if I’m reelected, and that’s it. . . . . When conquering heroes were brought back to Rome after a successful campaign, there was always a large crowd yelling his [sic] name or throwing rose petals. But by Roman law, a slave had to stand behind him in the chariot while holding the laurel wreath over his head, and had to keep saying to the general: ‘All fame is fleeting.’ Term limits is like that guy standing behind you." Mr. Tancredo has now said to the guy behind him: "Get thee behind me, Satan." The guy complied. The Lord stepped in in his place.

On September 26, 2002, Mr. Tancredo said that he’d been talking with the Lord who had absolved him of his pledge and as a result he might run serve for more than three terms. He said his career was now in "God’s hands." Talking to the same newspaper that had printed his pledge only 16 months earlier, he said of his newly discovered f self-importance: "You can characterize it as breaking a pledge." He went on to explain that because of his principled stand opposing immigration his fame would not be fleeting. Elaborating on the Lord’s involvement in his political career he said: "I believe I’m doing the honorable thing [breaking his pledge] by telling [supporters] exactly how I feel and what has happened to me over time. I do put it in God’s hands and I say, ‘Lord, I hope I’m doing what you want.’" Had he asked them, lots of people who are in less close contact with the Lord than Mr. Tancredo could have told him that betraying his supporters was probably not what the Lord wanted. He didn’t ask. Instead, in mid-April he announced he was running for a fourth term.

Mr. Tancredo does not place full responsibility for breaking his promise on the Lord. The voters, he thinks, have approved it. Before the 2002 election, he sent a letter to supporters telling them he was abandoning his pledge to serve no more than three terms saying he thought " term limits were a bad idea. There are certain issues you cannot do effectively [if you observe term limits.] For better or worse, I am the most highly visible member of Congress on the issue of immigration." He said he’d stay in office as long as he felt useful. The fact that he was reelected in 2002 after letting voters know of his change of heart suggests, he believes, that his broken pledge is of no matter to them. He equates reelection with forgiveness.

In endorsing him in 1998 the Rocky Mountain News observed that Mr. Tancredo had been a leader of the term limit movement. It said: "We don’t expect him to start backpedaling like Rep. Scott McInnis" [a Congressman from Colorado who had reneged on his promise to serve no more than three terms.] Mr. Tancredo didn’t backpedal. He got off the bike and pushed it over the cliff. Constituents should do the same thing to his career in the 2004 election. They probably won’t.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a Boulder, Colorado lawyer. His column appears weekly in the Daily Camera. He can be reached at: brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu