Tanks for the memories, Tom.
Tanks for the memories, Tom.
John Johnston

Off Limits

Not since the days of Pat Schroeder, who coined the term "Teflon President" to describe Ronald Reagan, has Colorado had a congressperson as quotable as Tom Tancredo. Although the longtime Denver Democrat is on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the four-term (and counting) Republican representative, they share the tendency to shoot from the lip. And that makes the job of a congressional press secretary particularly challenging -- especially in recent weeks, when Tancredo not only suggested that it might be good for Tom DeLay to step down from his leadership post for a while, but a fellow Republican suggested that Tancredo might want to get out of his own party...for good.

Official mouthpiece Carlos Espinosa doesn't regret a minute of his time with the congressman, even if he's leaving the Hill for respectable employment. Before departing last Friday, Espinosa provided the following list of his top ten memorable moments with Tancredo:

1. When I first realized that Immigration has fewer degrees of separation to everything than Kevin Bacon.

2. When I first realized that you can never go "too far" in pushing an issue or attacking someone.

3. When I first met some real "Tancraniacs" and learned that it wasn't just a funny term. He could easily follow in the footsteps of L. Ron Hubbard.

4. When I first heard someone call Tom "The Tank." It was another term that sounded great, but then I realized it also an indication of our press strategy.

5. I made the huge error of giving an offensive "off the record" statement that would have had my "lazy ass" fired in most places, especially when I was quoted word for word in the next day's edition of a California paper, but Tom just laughed at me. Tom has a great sense of humor.

6. When I got the chance to insult New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg publicly, in his hometown paper, while defending Tom.

7. Waiting for the next day's paper after Tom commented on the DeLay situation. Memorable and stressful go hand in hand with this one.

8. Successfully drawing Senator Salazar into a war of words. One (hyphenated) word: over-rated.

9. Watching Tom make it to the Elite Eight on the Presidential March Madness poll, beating McCain and other top-tier favorites.

10. Hitting the casino days before the election, knowing that Tom was going to handily beat his opponent (by twenty points) after some pundits thought he was in danger because she outraised him in the final three quarters. I knew she was done when I heard her "I cherish your vote" line.

BTW, Joanna "I cherish your vote" Conti announced last week that she had decided against running in the Seventh Congressional District; her family is still recovering from her campaign in the Sixth against Tancredo. That leaves only about a dozen Democrats looking at that race...

On the Record

Congressman Joel Hefley lost the chairmanship of the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in February, after the Colorado Springs Republican opposed Republican-sponsored changes to ethics-committee rules that would have protected Majority Leader Tom DeLay. But on April 27, the House voted to roll back its new rules, and Off Limits decided it was high time to ask the nine-term congressman about his high-minded ideals.

Q: How do you define your sense of ethics?

A: What I've tried to avoid in this whole thing is setting myself up as the paragon of virtue, and, you know, if we start talking about my philosophy of ethics, that kind of does that.

Q: Were you surprised by what happened with the ethics committee?

A: I really was. I knew when we were doing the Tom DeLay case that it had the potential of really blowing up. The Democrats want to go after DeLay the way Newt Gingrich went after Jim Wright, but I had no idea that it would have quite these results. The Republicans played into the whole thing when they arbitrarily and one-sidedly changed the rules. That looked awfully bad, and firing the two staff members who were most heavily involved in the DeLay case, that looked awfully bad, and getting rid of three-fifths of the Republicans, that looked awfully bad. It couldn't have been handled worse.

Q: How do you feel about the recent decision to return to the ethics rules of the 108th Congress?

A: I think it was very, very positive. What I would hope is that the ethics committee would review the rules and come up with a package of their suggestions.

Q: Would you consider chairing the committee again if Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert asked you?

A: [Laughs] I'm so glad to be off of it. If anybody thought they were punishing me by taking me off the committee, they were badly mistaken. I could not visualize chairing the ethics committee ever again. It wasn't a job I wanted to start with, and it's not a job I want now. It's one of those jobs that you can't win. If you don't hang everyone from the east Capitol steps, then there are those who say you are just too lenient. And if you do come down hard on everyone, you'll be treating some people unfairly.

Q: What do you think the fallout might be?

A: What I'm afraid of is that because of the extreme attacks on Tom from the Democrats and outside groups, the Republicans will begin to retaliate and go against Nancy Pelosi, and then the Democrats will go against someone else, and you get the ethics committee used as a political tool. That's wrong, and it shouldn't happen. I wish the Democrats would back off and the Republicans wouldn't retaliate, and we can use the ethics committee like it's supposed to be used -- to look at individual cases and try to stop bad behavior.

Q: Before this, what was the biggest ethics case the committee faced?

A: One of the biggest, most high-profile things was Jim Traficant. We ended up ejecting him from the Congress, and that probably got more publicity than almost anything until the DeLay matter. Mostly, we tried to educate the members to come to us first so we could make a determination. My theory was, keep people out of trouble rather than prosecute them, if we can. Most members of Congress are pretty good, but there are some others who aren't.

Q: Anyone in particular?

A: There is, but I'm not going to name names.

Q: Are you planning to run for a tenth term?

A: I don't make that decision ordinarily until Christmas the year before the election, because I don't want to think all the time about campaigning.


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