Jerry Kopel

So it's true. Charlie Duke is back in town. But I wouldn't put too much faith in the recent Denver Post story, which, using words such as "apparently" and "sources say" had Duke telling Senate President Ray Powers that his appointed successor, Doug Lamborn, should resign so that Duke could reclaim his Senate seat. Duke may be eccentric, but he is not stupid.

Using a choke-hold to attempt to take back a Senate seat in 1999 would guarantee disaster if Duke decides to run for the House in November of 2000. If Duke wants to get back in the legislature, he'll start preparing for the year 2000 Republican primary. Whoever wins that primary wins the seat in November.

In all the years in which Duke and I were both incumbents, there was one action by Duke which, if I were a bird, would still stick in my craw. And no, it wasn't the Holocaust Memorial debate about homosexuals dying in concentration camps. Here is the story:

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled 5 to 4 that a law (part of the Texas statutes) which provided burning the U.S. flag was a criminal offense, violated the First Amendment right to free speech. Congress then passed a law making flag burning a criminal offense. In June of 1990, the court wrote the same First Amendment violation applied to the bill passed by Congress.

The Colorado House was in special session beginning June 21, 1990. On June 27, Gov. Romer, covering his backside for the upcoming governor's election, added to the special session an item "Concerning a resolution honoring the flag." A Senate Joint Resolution was introduced urging Congress to enact legislation "proposing an amendment to the Constitution to protect the flag from conduct that would otherwise be shielded by the First Amendment."

During House debate on the SJR, Duke went to the microphone and said "Anyone who votes against this resolution is not a patriot." Seeking to avoid a floor food-fight, (as one of the "elder" statesman), I went to the front, was recognized by House Speaker Bev Bledsoe, and said "I'm sure Rep. Duke did not mean to imply that any member of the House is not patriotic, and that he was speaking in a more general tone (blah, blah, blah)." No one else got up to speak.

Of course Duke meant exactly what he said. While it was an affront to all legislators no matter how they stood on the matter, it was a special affront to those of us who had served in the military, saluted the flag, marched with it in parade, but knew the difference between symbolism and civil rights.

Later on that day, I went to the Colorado Press Assn. legislative directory to find out where Duke had done his military service. There was nothing listed, and if he had served it would have been there in capital letters.

Duke was born in 1942. In 1966, when the war in Vietnam was getting very hot, Duke was 24, an acceptable age for joining the military and serving in Vietnam. Now a lot of people Duke's age did not serve in the military in 1966 or earlier or later. Some were 4-F (including me. I had to talk my way into the Army).

Some had families. Duke had a two-year-old son. Some simply didn't choose to volunteer. That's fine. But if someone who is going to state publicly that those who disagree with him are not "patriots" he had better have the credibility to make such a statement. I looked up the word "patriot" in the Oxford Illustrated Dictionary:

"One who defends or is zealous for his country's freedom or rights."

Perhaps the best comment I have read on the subject of individual rights and flag burning was written ten years ago:

"All other civilizations around the world, despite their good points, are built on the opposite and dangerous teaching that something else is more sacred than the individual human being. It might be an abstraction, a theory, a symbol, a certain category of physical objects. It might be an infallible church, the all-powerful state, or even--this is the tricky one--the democratic will of the majority.

"This doctrine is dangerous because it seems to justify depriving individuals of life, liberty and property in an ever-increasing web of central control. Regardless of good intentions or persuasive excuses, this doctrine is a slippery slope that sooner or later lands in just one destination: tyranny.

"The United States Supreme Court did all of us a favor in its courageous decision that flag-burning, while despicable, should not be criminal. No political symbol is more sacred than individual freedom."

The author of those words? The present state senator, John Andrews. And what if fate had had Andrews and Duke both in the House when the issue of flag burning was debated. I would have enjoyed seeing them "duke it out".

* * *

Rule No. 10 for Legislators. How to get help from unexpected sources. There are an enormous number of newspapers in Colorado: Daily, weekly, giveaways, neighborhood-oriented. A large number of the smaller newspapers, or the giveaways found in restaurants, depend on "filler" to fill the paper.

"Fillers" are timeless stories that you can buy from a service and that, while sometimes interesting, never deal with anything within the range of the newspaper's circulation.

Legislators have something more interesting to offer than filler. They have bills to sponsor and bills to discuss. Each legislator tries to get stories into the newspapers that cover his or her district. And they usually ignore the other newspapers being published.

If you have a controversial bill, write a column explaining what the bill does and why it is needed. Have your assistant mail a copy to every newspaper in the state. Not every paper will print it, but SOME will, especially those hungry for copy other than filler. Chances are legislators in the newspaper's circulation area will read it and so will their constituents.

This has greater impact that just handing a legislator written arguments about the bill. After all, if their local newspaper thought enough of your column to publish it (perhaps as a letter) then maybe what you had to say was worth considering. And if another legislator's constituent calls or write him to support the bill, that has great influence. (I recall one legislator no longer in office who would support any bill about which she received five supportive phone calls or letters from constituents.)

Writing to every newspaper is not something you do each week. Choose those issues that have statewide appeal and never write more than once every six weeks, or you will wear out your welcome.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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