With all the timidity in politics, it’s hard to be shocked by cowardice.
But Minden Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler‘s videotaped remarks — and the reaction to them — is a stunning example of cowardice run amok. And the reasons may surprise you.
The headline from this video is that Wheeler said he’d vote for slavery if the constituents of his District 39 told him they’d support it. Wheeler actually defended that idea as the essence of a republic. But back the tape up a bit further, and start watching at the 35-minute mark:
UPDATE: The video has since been taken down, but you can find it on the Review-Journal‘s website here.
So we see that Wheeler freely admits that he thinks Brianna’s Law is an unconstitutional violation of the Fourth Amendment. (The overwhelmingly popular bill by Democratic Sparks state Sen. Debbie Smith and named for a Reno murder victim allows the government to take DNA samples from people arrested for — but not convicted of — felonies.)
But notwithstanding his personal conviction that the law violates the 4th Amendment, and notwithstanding his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, Wheeler voted in favor of Brianna’s Law! And why? Because he took out newspaper ads asking for his constituents’ views, and the results came back 3 to 1 in favor of it!
(A U.S. Supreme Court decision on a similar Maryland law upheld the pre-conviction DNA collection practice, but the Nevada law has enough key differences that it may not withstand a high court challenge, so that may have helped assuage Wheeler’s troubled conscience.)
But if Wheeler genuinely had a good-faith belief that the law was unconstitutional, he was obligated to vote against it, by oath and by conscience. To deny that is the ultimate expression of cowardice. And that’s true no matter how many of his constituents support it!
Having made the fundamental error that vox populi is vox Dei, it’s probably not surprising that Wheeler had prepared himself for even greater moral error. He continues on the tape:
But I was hired to do a job, what the people wanted me to do. So if it’s clear to me, even if it’s against my own wishes, what my constituents want, that’s the way I’m going to vote.
QUESTION FROM AUDIENCE MEMBER: Even if it’s unconstitutional?
WHEELER: That makes it just [makes a gesture of discomfort].
Now, does anybody think the 2nd Amendment-supporting Wheeler would have voted for a controversial background check bill last session if he believed his constituents were for it? Or that he’d vote to ban assault rifles if his constituents favored it? (Public opinion, after all, can chance radically with events and circumstances.) Well, perhaps he would. Here’s what he (really) said next:
When I ran my first campaign, and when I lost, I said the same thing, that I will do what my constituents want, end of discussion. And [Citizen Outreach director] Chuck Muth wrote a thing saying, ‘well, I guess this guy’ — he didn’t know me at all — ‘I guess this guy, if the citizens of District 39 want to bring slavery back, he’ll vote for slavery. So I wrote him a letter back and said, yeah, I would. If that’s what they want, I’d have to hold my nose, and bite me tongue, and you’d probably have to hold a gun to my head, but yeah, if that’s what the citizens of the, if that’s what the constituents want that elected me, that’s what they elected me for. That’s what a republic is about. You elected a person for your district for your wants and wishes, not for the wants and wishes of the special interests, not his own wants and wishes, yours. (emphasis added)
See? Having already surrendered his conscience, Wheeler seems prepared to resurrect perhaps the worst immorality that America as a nation ever perpetuated. And all because Wheeler can’t see the simple reality: There are transcendent moral laws that cannot be changed by public opinion, and to fail to stand for these is to descend into moral idiocy and cowardice that makes a person unworthy of representing anyone.
Put in simpler terms, it is sometimes incumbent upon lawmakers to tell their constituents “no,” if those constituents propose stupid, immoral, unconstitutional, or just plain bad ideas. That’s why — in the ideal — we have campaigns: Candidates tell voters what they believe, and voters choose among candidates based on their ideas. This is also why candidates pander to voters, trying to convince them that would-be lawmakers share their values and will represent their interests. Sometimes, that’s a lie, and the voters get surprises and disappointments.
But we do not elect delegates in America, pledged to vote only as a majority of constituents has directed. We elect representatives, to exercise their own good judgment by casting votes according to their beliefs. And if one of those beliefs is that slavery (now outlawed by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution) is perfectly all right if authorized by a majority of constituents, well, that’s a person who should not hold an office of trust or profit under the state of Nevada.
Alas, wait. There’s more.
Confronted with the videotape, Wheeler immediately performed yet another act of cowardice: He denied that what he clearly said on tape represented his actual views. Here’s a passage from a story in the Las Vegas Sun by reporter Andrew Doughman:
Reached by phone this afternoon, Wheeler now says he would not in actuality vote for anything that would legalize human slavery. Rather, he claimed, he was exaggerating in order to make a point that representing the will of his constituents is important to him. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard if anyone could even fathom believing it,” he said. “I don’t care if every constituent in (Assembly) District 39 wanted slavery, I wouldn’t vote for it. That’s ridiculous.”
Oh, really? He didn’t seem to be exaggerating on the tape. He seemed perfectly serious. And going on the assumption that no one would toss around the concept of re-legalizing slavery lightly (would they?), we can only come to a final, awful conclusion: Wheeler lacks even the courage of his misplaced convictions! His promise — however ill-founded — to always represent the will of his constituents no matter how awful was a lie! His reply to Muth was a lie! Wheeler is just another fast-talking politician, willing to say whatever it takes to get elected until somebody plays the tape, at which time he backtracks as fast as humanly possible.
Is it possible to be disappointed and relieved at the same time?
Or maybe the explanation is simpler. Perhaps Wheeler did another newspaper survey, and found his constituents believed that slavery was wrong after all? A final quote from Wheeler’s video performance:
I may not agree with you, but if it’s what you want, hey, you can live with the consequences. You will live with the consequences. And hopefully, you’ll come back to me and say ‘change this.’”
And he would.
UPDATE: Wheeler sent out an email to his elected colleagues. Here’s the text:
Subject: Recent media storm
Dear Senators and Assembly members:
The media is having a good time with a clearly facetious statement I made in a town hall meeting earlier this year. They’re attempting to spin an extreme example I used about supporting my constituents to accuse me of being racist. Anybody that knows me knows that’s absurd, and anyone that views the comments in context understands that the whole point of the example is that racism of any kind is something that I find completely unacceptable.
During the meeting, I was asked how I would vote if I believed one way on an issue, and my constituents believed the opposite. I stated the truth that I believe, which is that in a Representative Republic I’m hired by the people to represent their views. I used an over the top example of something that I absolutely do not agree with, and even mentioned that to get me to vote for such a thing, my constituents would literally have to hold a gun to my head. In reality, that isn’t the case at all. If my constituents wanted to do something as outlandish as bring back an abhorrent system, then I simply couldn’t represent them anymore. They would remove me from office, or I’d have to resign.
In the bill from the 2013 session that we were discussing, Brianna’s Law, I’d heard from an unusually large number of constituents, and the comments were 3-1 in favor of the bill. That’s a very clear mandate, and it was enough for me to set my opinion aside and represent the voters of District 39. Despite the media spin that claims I don’t think for myself, I give careful consideration to the votes I cast, and I find that 99% of the time my constituents agree with me. That makes sense – they elected me because they know that my beliefs align with theirs.
I don’t believe that my Assembly seat is a platform for my personal issues. I occupy the people’s seat: it’s my job to represent them faithfully, as I have done. As long as my constituents agree with my positions, I’m confident that they’ll keep hiring me to do the job. And if they ever decided that they wanted me to advocate for an unacceptable issue, they’d have to find somebody else to bring that to the Assembly.
If my comments were taken with offense by anyone, I sincerely apologize. I intended the statement as an extreme example of something unacceptable, and hope that’s how it’s taken.
Yes, Wheeler — entirely on his own and without prompting — brought up his communication with Muth to announce that he’d vote for slavery if his constituents approved of it, but it’s the media trying to spin this into a story. And the only way Wheeler could even possibly be considered racist is that he said he’d vote to re-institute slavery if his constituents wanted it. Absurd? Indeed. But it was Wheeler, and not the media, who said it.
But I’m glad to see Wheeler finally gets it: When your constituents are wrong, you tell them so, and let them know that if they want to do a wrong, repugnant thing such as bring back slavery, they can find somebody else to represent them. That is, of course, the exact opposite of the point he was making in his little talk, but better he learns his job now than never.
Sadly, he follows up by pointing out how he lacks the courage of his convictions, and voted for a law he believed to be unconstitutional in violation of his oath of office to support the Constitution simply because he heard from “an unusually large” number of people. This can only mean the possibility exists that if an unusually large number of people wanted him to do something bad, wrong, unconstitutional or otherwise immoral, Wheeler would at least consider it. I can think of few greater disqualifications for an office of trust or profit.
Finally, the classic non-apology apology: “IF my comments were taken with offense by anyone, I sincerely apologize.” He could have said, “In an attempt to demonstrate a point, I accidentally found myself saying I would vote for one of the greatest moral evils in the history of the world, and I understand how all people of good character would take offense, especially the descendants of the victims of slavery. To them especially, and to all the people of Nevada, I sincerely apologize for what I can see now was an outrageous comment.”
Wheeler’s district is overwhelmingly Republican, with nearly 10,000 more members of the GOP than Democrats. Surely, one of them could do a better job representing this area than Wheeler has, especially given recent allegations that he doesn’t even live in the district he represents. Primary challenge, anyone? It’s been a long time, but there still may be an abolitionist poster around somewhere…