Guest Columns

HUDSON: TRYING TO MAKE CENTS IN POLITICS

Question for politicos: How did those guys do it? — Wives who pay the bills!

Contributing Columnist

The average American President serves 14 years in public office before ascending to the White House. When some of those years involve service in a state legislature or as a county commissioner, you should figure they probably weren’t the primary breadwinner in their families. Politicians may dress well, by and large, but local elected office doesn’t pay well, while campaigns have become increasingly expensive. Voters generally don’t consider how their leaders can afford to run a campaign or serve in office, when elected. I suspect most Coloradans would be surprised to learn that Bill Ritter liquidated much of his retirement savings to cover family expenses when he ran for Governor in 2006. There is a reason why Dan Maes was using mileage reimbursements to make mortgage expenses in 2010. Any candidacy generally requires a significant element of self-financing even if that contribution is foregone income.

Our three most recent Presidents have relied on spouses who brought home the bacon as they were establishing themselves either in business or politics. In the case of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, they each attempted ill-fated campaigns for Congress as young men that placed huge personal and financial strains on their marriages before their political careers gathered momentum. In the case of George Bush, whose oil field businesses repeatedly failed before he got his chance to work for the Texas Rangers ballclub, it was Laura, the school librarian he married, that kept the family’s fortunes above water. Arguably, he could have turned to his family for help but it appears that he didn’t. All three Presidents relied on their wives to support their ambitions by bringing home a reliable paycheck. It would be fascinating if we could listen in on some of those conversations.

It’s also curious that these three men have five daughters between them, and no sons, but I will leave that for the behavioral geneticists to contemplate. Preachers and teachers like to talk about their career choices as a “calling.” I would suggest that for many of our politicians, the same internalized drive exists. But, just as with Olympic athletes or aspiring novelists, only a small fraction of these will ever rise to the top of the heap where they must compete with the wealthy, the privileged and the populist. Politics is one of the few professions where experience is frequently viewed as a handicap. While previous experience on the hustings is certain to help to a campaigner, it can prove a liability in terms of voter perception. Americans are quick to judge their politicians as mountebanks of dubious moral stature.

This propensity makes the political spouse critically valuable as they can offer a credible testament to the moral fiber of the candidate. And, in an in-creasingly equal world, that spouse is often a husband who is raising the kids, paying the bills and attending the soc-cer games, while Mama flies back and forth to Washington. Political office is a family affair, a team sport. Having weathered this experience myself, I admire those who choose to run, irrespective of party. The risks are high — bankruptcies and divorce are prevalent — but usually unseen by the electorate. The alliance struck between husband and wife has to be strong enough to survive setbacks, even defeats. Sometimes that means an early exit from the arena, a return to normality, but per-sistence can produce an eventual reward.

It would help if we paid elected officials better for the sacrifices they accept in order to serve. This would not only attract more quality candidates, but it helps to fend off the temptation to exchange favors and influence. New Mexico may be the last state in the nation to elect a volunteer legislature, paying no salary. Our neighbor has a sad history of corruption and bribery. As the Albuquerque Tribune observed several years ago, “If you think that our legislators will spend six months a year in Santa Fe without seeking compensation for themselves, you are only fooling yourself.” The question is only whether it will be the taxpayer, or the lobbyists and special interests. The same might be said about the exploding cost of campaigns. Public financing only sounds expensive. When elections are conducted as an auction, we shouldn’t be surprised when the highest bidders get what they want from government. That is expensive! And, those political spouses just might be a little more open to another campaign.

Miller Hudson is a former candidate and state representative and currently writes about politics for The Statesman, among his many other ventures.