It’s hard to imagine a worse kickoff to a political campaign. For Republican Bob Schaffer, formerly the self-described “Conservative Colorado Congressman” who currently is touting his “Common Sense Leadership” and running in one of the most closely-watched U.S. Senate campaigns in the country — well, a barefoot Schaffer just can’t seem to stroll into a pasture without stepping smack onto one fresh cow pie after another. Consider his missteps:
• The month before he was set to accept the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, Schaffer, in an interview with The Denver Post, held up the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands as a model for guest-worker programs. The response was fast, and furious: For more than a decade and a half, federal government workers, along with journalists and activists, including church workers, have chronicled horrific abuses to workers on the island in the Pacific, including reports of indentured servitude, inhumane living conditions, forced abortions and child prostitution. A major player in the bribery and corruption scandals on the island was Jack Abramoff, the now-jailed lobbyist who was paid by the Mariana Islands government and its garment factory owners to defeat any efforts to reform worker conditions on the island — and whose law firm partly arranged a $13,000 “fact-finding” trip that Schaffer and his wife took to the island in 1999 while he was in Congress. The trip was paid for by the anti-gay, California-based Traditional Values Coalition, whose president, Lou Sheldon, had close ties to Abramoff.
It’s difficult to fathom how Schaffer, of his own doing, could have highlighted as ideal such a sordid example of sweatshop abuses. In subsequent press reports, Schaffer claimed that he never met Abramoff and also defended his stance, saying that during his visit to the island he observed some "problems," but overall "the workers were smiling; they were happy." And, Schaffer said, "In five days, I did not observe a forced abortion or meet anybody who had any knowledge of them."
Wendy Dormoral, a school teacher who spent years documenting and exposing the worker abuses, was flabbergasted. “Hell, I didn’t see anyone get an abortion either, but they certainly were happening,” Dormoral told the Colorado Independent. “What does he mean, he didn’t see it? What kind of a senator will he make?” While he was in Congress (the Republican from Fort Collins served three terms between 1996 and 2002), Schaffer, she said, appeared nothing more than a “foot soldier for Abramoff” in resisting efforts for reforms, including following the lobbyist’s playbook to try to discredit the federal government and reports from activists.
After the Post story published, Schaffer refused further efforts to clarify his past role regarding the Mariana Islands. But at the time that he was holding its guest-worker program as his “ideal” this year, after 16 years worth of efforts Congress ushered reforms, which have since been signed into law by George W. Bush, imposing U.S. labor and immigration laws in the Mariana Islands. Schaffer has not said whether he agrees with the reforms, which received support from both current Colorado Sens. Ken Salazar and Wayne Allard.
• The same week of his May 30 GOP nomination for the open Senate seat, Schaffer found himself intimately connected with another man convicted of defrauding the government. On May 27, Bill Orr was found guilty of 22 federal charges, including mail fraud, wire fraud, making false statements to the government and to investors, and failing to file tax returns. Orr’s scheme involved defrauding the federal government with a $3.6 million congressional earmark he landed to test a fuel additive that he promised was a proven success. Orr faces 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and is scheduled for sentencing in October.
For five months beginning in 2004, Schaffer served on the board of Orr’s National Alternative Fuels Foundation, which had received the congressional earmark. Schaffer, on the witness list during Orr’s trial, never testified, but said in press accounts that he quit the board when he realized Orr was under investigation. However, Schaffer has not publicly explained whether, as a board member and former member of Congress, he ever suspected Orr’s scheme was illegal and what, if anything, he did to assist in the investigation. Schaffer did, however, attempt to throw a longtime associate and Republican activist Scott Shires under the bus, claiming that Shires was the one who recruited him to Orr’s board of directors.
• Last week, Schaffer found himself having to answer for his role as a congressman-turned-oil-and-gas-exec. While in Congress, Schaffer voted to go to war with Iraq; after leaving office he went to work as an oil executive and helped negotiate oil production contracts for his company in Iraq. (Schaffer stepped down as a vice president of Denver-based Aspect Energy to run for the Senate in December.) As The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on July 10, the contract between Aspect Energy and the Kurdistan regional government has been flagged by the U.S. State Department as “problematic for Iraq and its attempts to establish a national oil policy.” The newspaper indicated that the former congressman “said he was unaware the State Department had warned energy firms not to strike oil deals with the Kurdistan regional government at the time of his visit.”
Meanwhile, though his campaign has tried to emphasize Schaffer’s interest in renewable energy, Schaffer has so far received $114,150 in donations from the oil and gas industry. That puts him in the top 10 overall for all current U.S. Senate candidates that have received donations from that industry this campaign cycle.
• And then there’s the abortion conundrum. A longtime ardent opponent of abortion, Schaffer, a career conservative who is now trying to wear a moderate suit, has so far not taken a public position on this November’s proposed “personhood” amendment — angering some pro-life activists. The initiative — also referred to as the Egg as a Person, or Zygote as a Person amendment — would define a person as deserving full legal rights “from the moment of fertilization." Schaffer’s refusal to take a position on the radical amendment has been viewed by many on the far right as being orchestrated by his campaign manager Dick Wadhams, who is also the chairman of the state Republican Party. For his part, Wadhams further angered abortion foes by refusing to allow them to hand out literature at the state GOP convention, and referred to the group Colorado Right to Life (CRTL) as "on the fringe of the pro-life movement.”
"Colorado Right To Life is warning Dick Wadhams … that by shunning their pro-life conservative base they’re headed for another election catastrophe in November," said CRTL president Joe Riccobono, in a June 16 release by the group. Echoed CRTL Vice President Leslie Hanks: "Wadhams has moved U.S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer to the liberal middle, and he’s trying to drag the Colorado GOP to the left." Anti-abortion activists — along with choice proponents — have also criticized Schaffer for ignoring reports of forced abortions in the Marianas Islands
• Another squish-through-the-toes moment, albeit with far less serious implications, came when Schaffer’s campaign rolled out its first campaign TV commercial on May 16. The ad starred Schaffer, with Colorado’s Pikes Peak in the backdrop, talking about his commitment to the Centennial State, proudly noting he proposed to his wife atop the mountain. The only problem: Schaffer was actually standing in front of Alaska’s Mount Denali, also called Mount McKinley. An embarrassed campaign staff was forced to yank the ad, and replace Denali with the correct image. Though this controversy pales in comparison with the substance of the others, Mount McKinley-gate drew clucks or gasps of delight — depending on one’s perspective — from supporters and opponents for its utter amateurishness.
Earlier this year, the group U.S. Term Limits produced a video, called "Thanks Bob," highlighting Schaffer’s support of charter schools.
The liberal group ProgressNow Action responded with with a spoof on the "Thanks Bob" ad, highlighting Schaffer’s ties to the oil and gas industry.
Schaffer is, by most reports, a friendly guy, as is his likely Democratic opponent Mark Udall, whose campaign has so far been relatively scandal-free — though Udall received heavy criticism over his FISA vote to allow the federal government to eavesdrop without warrant on phone and computer lines. Schaffer and Udall, a five-term Congressman from Eldorado Springs are vying to replace Allard, who is retiring after two Senate terms.
But, at least to reporters, Schaffer’s demeanor — and that of his campaign manager and spokesman Wadhams — has often been far less than jovial.
Wadhams did not return calls for this story. Other news organizations have described his behavior as brutal at times, verbally beating reporters about the head and shoulders, accusing them of unfair attacks against the candidate. In an interview with the online PolitickerCO.com, both Schaffer and Wadhams attacked the organization’s reporter for asking about the Marianas controversy, accusing The Denver Post of failing to report “accurately and completely” — but refusing to provide further details or substantive corrections.
In one broadcast report, Schaffer was asked by a Grand Junction television reporter to clarify his relationship with Jack Abramoff. “I never met him,” Schaffer responded with obvious chilliness, abruptly ending the interview and walking away.
On May 9, Dennis Herzog, editor of The Grand Junction Sentinel, also recounted an incident of Wadhams recently trying to bully one of his reporters, who had called for response to an issue involving petroleum reserves. As Herzog wrote in his blog:
"Reporter Mike Saccone, as any good reporter would do, called [Mark] Udall’s opponent to get a response," Herzog wrote. "Republican Bob Schaffer is very seldom available. He called Dick Wadhams, Schaffer’s campaign manager. I don’t think he ever even got to tell Wadhams why he was calling. The minute Wadhams got on the phone he launched into Mike, telling him he was a biased reporter, that he’s taken cheap shots at Schaffer and asking when we were going to do the same thing to Udall. I listened to the tape of the conversation. Mike seldom got to complete a question. Every time he tried Wadhams interrupted with yet another complaint about Mike and/or our coverage. He did manage to ask Wadhams for specific instances of biased reporting or cheap shots and Wadhams provided none.
"The exchange was amusing. I don’t know what Wadhams was trying to accomplish other than to try to get our reporter to go easier on his candidate in future stories. Whatever it was it will have no effect whatsoever on how we cover the Senate race. We’ll continue to cover it as completely and fairly as possible."
But one organization that clearly has been having a ball during the campaign is the liberal Progress Now, whose members have created videos poking fun at Schaffer’s blunders and highlighting his efforts at political shape-shifting.
“Bob Schaffer has this record: He was incredibly conservative when he was a congressman, and now he’s trying to run as a moderate,” says Progress Now spokeswoman Jody Berger. “If he was running on his actual record then that would be one thing. But his record is not good, and it adds insult to injury that he’s not owning up to it.
"He’s gotten a lot of money from oil and gas companies, and then went to work for an energy company. He walked right into the Marianas Island controversy, and his involvement with Bill Orr is extremely troublesome. What we’re doing is shining the spotlight on what’s already out there.”