Tag Archives: controversy

Political junkets

Politicians Need To Travel, But They Also Have To Be Aware Of The Pitfalls

In light of the Fiesta Bowl scandal, we can expect a higher level of scrutiny when it comes to our elected officials and their travel. People will be very fixated on our politicians’ trips abroad and the reasons for them. This isn’t a new issue, but it is an issue that sometimes goes unnoticed and then other times receives a lot of attention (especially after controversy).

I had a friend ask me why it seems so hard for elected officials to just say no to travel, especially when it may be so obviously a junket. Having been in elected office, I can only tell you that this issue isn’t always so black and white. I traveled a few times in the four years I served and never felt like I took a single junket, but others might disagree.

When staff or some other outside interest first approached me about traveling, there were often selling points introduced up front. It starts with why the trip needed to be taken. Next was the explanation of who would be paying for the trip (taxpayers, a nonprofit, business, etc.). Occasionally, and this could be the biggest indicator of whether it would be a junket or not, they might give you validation statements: “This won’t even be noticed.”  “Everybody does it.”  “Nobody will care.” Sadly, sometimes those points are accurate. Now I am not excusing what happened with the Fiesta Bowl “junketeers” as they are being called, but this temptation can cloud your perspective.

The saddest part about blatant abuses is that it taints everybody. There are trips that we should have our elected officials take. Without a doubt the public receives benefit from some of these trips. The most obvious example I have is of Sen. Lamar Alexander when he was governor of Tennessee. The state’s economy was in bad shape, so he spent time traveling in the Far East, where he was able to convince a Japanese car company to build a plant in Tennessee. Without a doubt this benefited his state and probably could not have been done without direct “on-the-ground” contact.

With economic development you also run into the issue that you can’t expect an obvious result attached to each trip. Sometimes you need to cultivate relationships. A trip may not bring an exact result, but eventually it might pay off with a win such as Tennessee received.

Then you run into the question of how important is diplomacy? Does the public receive a benefit from elected officials having meetings with other elected officials from both the U.S. and abroad? The city of Phoenix has benefited greatly by elected officials traveling to Washington, D.C. to pursue grant dollars and other assistance.

Sometimes the public has the view that any travel is a “perk” and unjustified. When I was on council, I was involved in a program called River Rampage. This program took inner-city kids and youth with physical disabilities on a river trip. Each kid had to perform 40 hours of community service. In order to accomplish this, they used volunteers who had to go through an orientation, help three or four kids get their service in (which meant serving with them), and then make sure they had the appropriate gear for the trip. After months of working with these kids, it ended with a one-week trip on the river. I volunteered with River Rampage. My office staff worried that this trip would be viewed as a “free” river trip junket as opposed to me volunteering in a youth program. Fortunately, that accusation was never made, but it was a concern.

Without a doubt there are abuses that occur in elected officials’ travel. These abuses are harmful to the public because they create a sense that elected officials are in it for their own pleasure. But beyond that, these abuses also create fear within the elected ranks that might prevent officials from taking trips that are important and would serve the public.

Politicians at Work

Loving To Hate Politicians Is An Old Sport

We love to hate our elected officials.  It seems like the American system of representative-democracy is based off of a cycle where we elect leaders and then become disillusioned with them. There is a logical reason why this happens.

A local television station in the Phoenix area has a commercial promoting what their news team is doing for you, and they run through a series of short sound bites. One of their claims is that they are “exposing corrupt politicians.” I know that not every elected official has always been honorable and upright, but it bothers me that we frequently present elected officials as being bad. While I was on the Phoenix City Council, my 16-year-old nephew told me that a high school teacher announced to his entire class that every elected official is a liar.

I have had the privilege of getting to serve in public office and the insights of having worked on numerous campaigns in different capacities over the years. Almost every candidate and elected official I’ve encountered has had good intentions and seemed to want to serve the people they sought to represent. While they have had different worldviews, different perspectives and different parties, I can’t remember a single one of them seeking office in order to fleece the public, and yet, that is a fairly common claim nowadays. I still have friends in office. In the face of controversy, they agonize over tough decisions. They lose sleep at night trying to do the right thing.

The truth is that often we determine whether an elected official is good or bad based on whether they do the things we personally want them to do. For instance, if I’m opposed to a rezoning case and an elected official voted in favor of it, he or she is doing a lousy job of representing me! But what happens when the public disagrees? What happens when neighbors, businesses and property owners are diametrically opposed to one another? Someone is leaving that scenario unhappy with their elected representative.

In our American system, politicians aren’t supposed to just do what the majority wants. We elect people to office, and they are not required to vote in a way that represents a majority of their constituents. There are times in our nation’s history when the masses didn’t stand on the correct side of an issue. John Kennedy wrote a book called “Profiles in Courage” in which he detailed numerous stories of elected officials who stood for principle in the face of public opposition. Today, we call that an unresponsive government. If a politician doesn’t vote the way the people demanded, he must be corrupt and self serving.

None of this is new.

In the Bible, King Solomon was asked by God what he wanted. He responded by saying he sought wisdom. When he had a chance to ask for anything, he asked or something that seemed to benefit himself. This wasn’t a selfish request. His intent was to be wise for the benefit of the people over which he ruled.