Warrior Legislators Face Dilemma: Give Up One Job?
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer
Heavy reliance on National Guard troops and reservists in the U.S. war on terrorism is laying a novel problem on the doorstep of statehouses. Legislators and other state officials called to extended active duty must choose between serving their nation in the military or their state capitol.
Nationwide, more than a dozen state legislators have been called to active duty since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and those sent overseas for long stretches are bumping up against a U.S. Defense Department policy designed to prevent active-duty military members from engaging in partisan politics.
Missouri state Sen. Jon Dolan (R) was reprimanded by the military for flying home last year from his post in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to cast a crucial vote on concealed-weapons legislation. Dolan found out the hard way that he was barred from simultaneously acting as a legislator and an active military member. Forced to choose, he resigned from the Army National Guard last month.
In Hawaii, state Rep. Tulsi Tamayo (D), made the opposite choice. A member of the Army National Guard, Tamayo is training for an 18-month mission to Iraq. She announced Aug. 29 that she will not actively seek re-election, even though it is too late for her name to be removed from the ballot before the November election.
In a crackling telephone interview from outside Kabul, Afghanistan, Texas state Rep. Rick Noriega told Stateline.org that a recently passed amendment to his state's Constitution offers him a middle-of-the-road alternative naming a temporary replacement while he finishes his tour of duty.
Assuming Noriega wins re-election in November (he is running unopposed), the Houston Democrat plans to name his wife, Melissa, to serve in his place. She already has been taking on some legislative duties in his absence.
"I signaled to the community and to the public right away that if I was placed in the position where I needed to appoint someone, I would appoint my wife," Noriega said Aug. 26.
In a letter to his constituents posted on his Web site, which features pictures of him both as legislator and soldier, Noriega recounts his experience arriving in Afghanistan. "Immediately what struck me was the climate, the dust, and the faces of the people," he writes. "Riding in the back of the truck with our weapons positioned outward, I realized I was in a different world."
The problem for legislators who are part-time soldiers comes if the lawmaker is called to active duty for nine months or more, not uncommon as the U.S. military, stretched thin, is relying more than ever on guardsmen and reservists to perform combat duties and relieve full-time soldiers. The Pentagon policy bars a service member on extended active duty from campaigning for state or local office and, if already elected to a partisan post, from exercising "the functions of their civil office."
To help address the dilemma posed for lawmaker soldiers, the Texas Legislature last year passed a constitutional amendment that allows a legislator called to active duty for longer than 30 days to select a temporary replacement from the same political party. The replacement would have all of the privileges of the original officeholder, including a vote, and would receive the legislator's pay.
Worried that constituents of deployed legislators won't receive adequate representation, five other states (Indiana, Iowa, South Carolina, South Dakota and Tennessee) also recently passed legislation to make it easier for elected state officials called overseas to delegate their official duties by naming a temporary replacement.
But many states have no provision allowing legislators called to war to delegate their powers, placing some between a rock and a hard place: To adhere to the Pentagon policy, they either would have to resign from the military or stop performing their government duties.
State and local officials called to active duty are sometimes unsure how to comply with the policy, especially because it is left up to individual military supervisors to interpret and enforce.
Under department policy, a state legislator called to active duty of more than 270 days must immediately cease all contact with constituents, including e-mail, all official contact with staff and all other actions in his capacity as an elected official, Pentagon officials say.
"The military is supposed to remain apolitical," said Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a defense department spokeswoman. "When you exercise the duties of an elected office, you are no longer apolitical, even if your actions are not directly related to the military."
In Missouri, there is no official mechanism for elected officials to delegate their powers. Rather than leave his constituents without representation or risk a court martial if he again violated the Defense Department's policy, Dolan resigned his military commission last month. Now he's out to see that the Pentagon changes or clarifies the regulation before other elected officials serving on active duty get burned the way he feels he did.
"We must have our mayors and our state legislators serving with our citizen soldiers. ... You have to have your community going to war together," he said.
While on active duty in Cuba last September, Dolan, a third-term Republican, was cleared by military officials to fly home to attend a special session of the Missouri Senate and cast the pivotal vote to override Gov. Bob Holden's (D) veto of controversial concealed-weapons legislation.
Upon his return to Cuba, Dolan's commanding officers launched an investigation that concluded Dolan violated military policy by voting in the Legislature while on active duty and issued a letter of reprimand.
Citing a letter that U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld urging a review of Dolan's leave, Dolan claims he fell victim to partisan politics. He says that Missouri Democrats unhappy that Republicans successfully overrode Holden's veto pressured the Pentagon to take action against him.
Other state legislators and candidates who have been called to active duty include:
- Florida state Rep. Carey Baker (R), a sergeant in the state's Army National Guard, who came home in February after a year of active duty in Iraq. Baker, a delegate to this week's Republican National Convention, refrained from voting while overseas, and his staff recruited other legislators to manage his bills, an aide said.
- California Assembly candidate Tom Umberg, who was ordered to report to his Army Reserve unit earlier this month. The Orange County Democrat, who faces a Republican opponent, has said he will not campaign through the Nov. 2 election.
- Maryland state Rep. Anthony Brown (D), the House majority whip, who has spent most of the summer training with his Army Reserve unit at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. He is to head in September to Iraq, where he will be chief legal adviser for a civil affairs command based in Baghdad's Green Zone.
In addition to legislators, one statewide elected official also got pulled from civilian life by the war on terrorism. In October 2001, Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt was called to active duty by the Navy Reserves to serve in Afghanistan. Blunt, who is now the Republican candidate for governor of Missouri, was sent overseas for only six months, so he was not subject to the Defense Department's restrictions on political activities.