Stateline Story

Lawmakers Go AWOL When Military Calls

  • November 01, 2006
  • By Pauline Vu

On Election Day, Jonathan Paton's name will appear on Arizona's ballot as a Republican candidate seeking re-election to his District 30 state House seat, but he'll be 7,600 miles and 10 time zones away in Baghdad.

Paton, an intelligence officer with the Army Reserves, is the only state legislator up for election who is known to be serving in a war zone on Nov. 7.

Missouri state Rep. Jason Brown (R) would still be in Iraq with his Army Reserve unit if not for a sniper's bullet to the lung that brought him home for a 30-day convalescence. He'll be in Platte County for his election against Democrat Jared Welch, a member of the state's Air National Guard, but Brown is slated to head back to Iraq for light duty just days after the election.

The war on terrorism thrusts legislators such as these into a dilemma: how to serve both their country and their constituents. Pentagon rules ban active-duty personnel from participating in partisan politics. That means no voting in the legislature, no introducing bills - and no campaigning.

With unprecedented reliance on National Guard and Reserve troops to help fight the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, state legislators are among the citizen-soldiers being called to active military duty. There are at least 57 current state legislators who serve in National Guard or Reserve units, and 30 have been deployed while in office, according to a survey by Hawaii state Rep. Mark Takai (D), a National Guardsman and the first chairman of the newly formed National Network of Legislators in the Military.

In 2004, the military reprimanded Missouri state Sen. Jon Dolan (R), who got permission to fly home from duty in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to vote on a concealed weapons bill. Dolan later chose to resign from the Army National Guard rather than risk court martial or leave his constituents without representation.

Now that Paton is in uniform, the Arizona legislator can't talk about his 2006 election campaign any more than he can talk about his intelligence work in Iraq. So back home, his friends run his absentee campaign for him. His district includes two other Republicans also running for re-election - fellow state Rep. Marian McClure and state Sen. Tim Bee - and when they make appearances, they mention Paton. When they pass out campaign fliers, they include Paton's information.

A letter on Paton's MySpace entry acknowledges, "While I cannot be there to knock on doors and visit with voters, I will have a campaign team of my supporters to help me. … I would very much appreciate your vote and support in this election."

Barred from partisan politicking, Paton hasn't responded to his Democratic opponent, Clarence Boykins, who contends Paton should have given up his seat before volunteering to go to Iraq. "You cannot serve two masters," Boykins told The Arizona Daily Star.

But Judi White, chairwoman of the Pima County Republican Party, told Stateline.org , "The reality is that Mr. Boykins doesn't have any issues, and he's trying to drum up something for his campaign, and I think it's completely backfired on him." A lawyer advised the party not to put a reporter in touch with Paton because of the Pentagon's rules against campaigning.

The ban on soldiers engaging in partisan politics means some legislative districts are deprived of representation when their lawmaker is activated.

Iowa state Rep. Ray Zirkelbach (D) missed the entire 2006 session of the General Assembly because his National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq. Iowa House members draped an American flag over his desk on opening day. A legislative aide said no one filled in for him. Zirkelbach, who is running unopposed for re-election this year, currently is home on leave but will return to Iraq.

At least five states - Indiana, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas - have a law allowing activated legislators to name a temporary replacement. In Texas' last legislative session, Republican state Reps. Frank Corte and Carl Isett, who only recently returned from the Middle East, named their wives to take their places.

Two days before the election, a candidate on Oregon's ballot will be shipping out with the Air National Guard for a two-month stint in Afghanistan, leaving behind one of the state's most closely contested legislative races. Paul Evans, the Democratic candidate in Senate District 10, is facing Republican incumbent Jackie Winters. Evans is slated to return days before the next Legislature convenes on Jan. 8.

In Florida, Democrat James Walker already has finished a tour of duty in Iraq with the Army Reserves and is fighting an uphill battle against state Rep. Dennis Baxley (R), a three-term incumbent spending 10 times as much as Walker in a heavily Republican district. Walker used to joke, "Just my luck, those darn Republicans will call me back so I can't finish this campaign." About eight weeks ago, he got a letter telling him to report for duty in June for a second tour in Iraq.

Walker said he almost quit the race, but supporters convinced him to stay in it - even though if he wins he'll have to report for duty just after the 2007 legislative session ends and be absent for the 2008 session.