Out of the Hickenlooper

jolly ranchers 0620

Here is the sort of gross generalization I used to lecture college students against using in their writing: everyone loves free stuff. In this case, however, since it’s me and not my students, it’s a truism: people love getting things for free. Perhaps not everyone, but almost everyone. Lots. Lots of people like getting stuff for free.

Perhaps you don’t go to trade shows. I do, about once every five-six years, and when I get back I have bags that can sit around unpacked for months. When I finally do open them, I always wonder what came over me. A lot of the bag’s contents are items pressed upon me by those in the trade booths: catalogues, spec sheets, samples. But there’s always the odd assortment of free things, set out at the booths specifically for you to take as a freebie.

Candy is always a popular giveaway, although smarter freebies are those with your company name attached (you can order them for your company from Pat’s Screen Printing). No matter what it is, though, if it’s free and on a table I pass by, I pick it up and bring it home. Where I look at the assortment of candy I’m never going to eat and keychains I don’t need and think, Why did I take this?

The answer, of course, is because it was free.

Any time I pass “street merchandise,” where someone has been cleaning house and set out items free for the taking, I always stop and peruse them, frequently tempted even as I wonder where I would go with that credenza. The thing that usually stops me in these instances is that I am on foot and would need my truck to get them. And by the time I get near my truck, I’ve forgotten all about my momentary frenzy over the absolutely free armchair we don’t need.

Of course, not all free stuff is really free. Street merchandise is: the owner just wants it to go away, at your expense rather than his or hers. The candy at trade shows is: no one’s going to remember who was handing out Jolly Ranchers and who had the Twizzlers. The free samples come with a touch more of an obligation: try this; if you like it, don’t forget to give us a call.

Then there are the professions where almost every “free” thing comes with a string attached. Which is precisely why there are rules, regulations and laws against giving certain people free things. And by “certain people,” I mean government officials and politicians.

Here in Colorado we love stuffing our state constitution full of instructions, without regard to how it might interact with any of the other stuffing in the constitution. We do this because it’s easy (way too easy) to put in and extremely hard to take out. As opposed to legislation, which can be altered or even repealed.

In 2006 we stuffed a provision into our constitution that very sternly dictates which Jolly Ranchers a public figure can help him or herself to off someone’s “don’t mind me” table set right in front of them and what free samples ought not to be touched. It’s rather draconian, but a good rule of thumb for any public official, municipal through national, is: don’t go near it, no matter how innocent those Twizzlers seem.

Then there are the bigger things, things that seem obvious to the rest of us, to make another gross generalization, that politicians indulge in all the time. Like giving rides to spouses on transportation the public is paying for, or expecting staff members to pick up your dry cleaning — you know, the stuff that brought about the downfall of many people early in the current national administration, there to “clean up” the swamp by diving into it themselves.

Of course, now that we get around to the secretary of state, who may have violated ethics either by having a staffer walk his dog or by making an illegal arms agreement with Saudi Arabia (you know, garden variety stuff), we solve the problem by getting rid of the inspectors. There. Nothing to see here.

In Colorado, though, we’re not quite that convenient, because it’s in that constitution, and sometimes the whistleblowers are not people who can be fired.

Let me confess that, caught up as I was in racial injustice, presidential unpresidentialness and unemployment —

[It turns out, 13.3 percent was a typo, a typo that caused the stock market to jump and the president to celebrate. The real unemployment rate for May was over 16 percent — still not the anticipated 20, but well above 13.3.]

— I was not paying a great deal of attention to Colorado. But mid-week I came to the realization that once and would-be politician John Hickenlooper (D) was falling afoul of our constitutionally enshrined ethics clause, as noted in a complaint lodged by a member of the Colorado legislature.

Governor, I guess would be the correct form of address, Hickenlooper, once an oilman turned brewer, has enjoyed a charmed life in politics until recently. He won every race he entered, serving two terms as Denver mayor before serving two terms as Colorado governor.

The powers that be wanted him next to run against Cory Gardner, a Republican senator whose term is up in January, but Governor Hickenlooper, who made the long but not the short list of vice presidential candidates four years ago, set his sights on an ambitiously high platform: the presidency itself.

Here his string of successes failed him, and badly. Intended or not, his campaign pointed out his many quirks while downplaying any gravitas, and he exited without any of the notice that was placed on several of the other also-rans.

Still he said he didn’t want to run for the senate, but somehow, eventually, he got talked into it. He could have some effect as a senator, but so far — it seems from here in the cheap seats — that his heart isn’t in it.

To even get there, he has to get past a primary opponent, one who really does want the job. So I’m not sure that being held in contempt for failure to show for his ethics hearing just three weeks before the primary is a good look.

He didn’t show up for his scheduled appearance Thursday before the ethics commission, which on Friday found him in violation on two counts (a limousine ride in Italy and a private plane trip on a contractor’s dime) while clearing him of four others (plane rides provided by friends). His attorney acknowledged that the contempt citation probably wouldn’t play well.

I don’t really understand the refusal to show up. Whether you think the charges are Republicans chasing after Jolly Ranchers or not (the five-member commission, including at least one member appointed by Gov. Hickenlooper, obviously found more than free candy) that refusal — despite how well it works for officials at the national level these years — makes the presumption of guilt that much easier.

I don’t know that his primary opponent will make an issue of this, but you can rest assured, should the former governor get past the June 30 race, the Republicans will. Why hand that kind of ammunition to them — unless your heart still isn’t in this race and secretly you don’t want to win?

The next time I pass a table offering candy I don’t want, even if it’s free, I’m going to make an effort to say “No thanks.” Governor Hickenlooper might want to practice that as well.

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