On The Lam, An Ethics Scenario

Tomorrow I will be leading a session on ethics at the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. I typically present a scenario with multifaceted ethical dilemmas embedded, and talk through it. For tomorrow’s talk I have written a new scenario and I thought I would share it here.

How many ethical dilemmas can you spot? Who has them? What are they?

On The Lam

Michigan state Senator John Cooper looked out the window of his home office at the pond that took up part of his back yard. A duck was paddling in the water. It was early March, and much of the pond was still frozen. But there was an area near the shore where a storm drain let out, causing the water to churn a bit. This spot typically unfroze first.

He turned back to his computer screen. He was composing a letter to his chief of staff, Alice Monroe. She had very quickly become his right hand when he was first elected, and had served with him through three terms. She seemed to know everything about Lansing, and Cooper had come to rely on her.

He had written “Dear Alice,” but did not know where to go from there. He was trying to decide whether to fire her or not. He thought back and reflected on how strange the last three weeks had been.

It had started with a trial balloon that the state’s new governor, Frederick Thurston, had floated in his State of the State address. This was his first such address. He had been elected in a close election running on a strong environmental platform. This had surprised observers of Michigan politics, since so much of public life revolved around unions, manufacturing and the economy in the state. Newspaper columnists were wondering if it was a sign of change.

Thurston had proposed in his State of the State message a new regulation for businesses — they would need to pay for vastly expanded environmental studies that included a section on likely climactic impacts of any new land use proposal. Republicans and business leaders in the state had howled at the idea, since it seemed likely that the result would be that no new projects of any sort would be initiated. Michigan needed its economy to get moving again, and Cooper was not alone in his string feeling that this was a step in the opposite direction.

Thurston again surprised political observers by getting his proposal sponsored and submitted as a House bill and it passed quickly. The bill was presented to the Senate and somehow it was clear that every Senate Democrat was planning on voting for the measure. That was when things turned very strange.

Cooper had gotten a call from Janice Brandt, the Senate Republican leader. The 38 members of the Senate were evenly divided and the Democrats enjoyed a one-person majority in the person of the Lieutenant Governor.

Brandt had decided to follow the lead of Wisconsin a few years ago, and ordered all Senate Republicans to go into hiding out of state. By doing this, they could prevent a quorum, since a majority of members had to be present. This would stop action on the bill.

Cooper had grave misgivings about the tactic, but he went along. He holed up in a Super 8 Motel in South Bend, Indiana. The stalemate went on and on. The Senate president, Frank Marshall, ordered the wayward senators back and had the State Police look for them. Every day, the Republican Senators would hold a conference call where they strategized on what to do. Day by day, it looked like the resolve of the group was slipping a bit. They could not continue their disappearing act forever.

Every morning the Senators held their call — and every afternoon there was a similar call for staff. In this call, Cooper knew, Louis Parker, the chief of staff to Brandt, stressed the need for the Senate staffers to do what they could to try to keep their legislators in line. Chinks in the armor were to be reported up the chain of command.

Senators each had two staffers. These staffers typically had divided loyalties. While their job was to support their Senator, in practice they were beholden to the larger party structure. A staffer might find herself or himself working for many legislators over their career, as the party kept a list of good staff candidates. Some legislators hired people they already knew, or even family members, but the reality of legislating was that it worked best if someone on staff knew the ropes from the get-go.

After three weeks of living out of a suitcase in secret, Cooper had had enough. He thought Brandt’s plan had backfired and gone too far. He decided to go back to Lansing. He asked Alice Monroe, his chief of staff, to meet him at the office one Wednesday. That Tuesday night he drove back home to Brighton.

He drove to the Capitol and parked his car in his reserved space. He never made it to his office. Brandt’s chief of staff, Louis Parker, was waiting for him in the garage, glaring. As Cooper got out of his car, Parker tore into him and described what life would be like as a legislative pariah. No committee memberships. No privileges. No way to get anything done whatsoever for his constituents. “We will crush you,” he said. Cooper pushed back, standing on principle, but Parker finally convinced him to at least take a day to think about it. There was some headway in negotiations and one day might do the trick. Cooper drove home, fuming. It was obvious that Monroe had betrayed him to Parker.

Now, with little to do but wait, he thought about what to say to Alice.  And, whether to head back to Indiana.

(Photo: Flickr user hoyasmeg)

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

One thought on “On The Lam, An Ethics Scenario”

  1. 1. Thurston has an ethical problem of lying through omission for not campaigning on a climate change environmental platform. Legislation that is revolutionary rather than evolutionary requires that voters know what they are getting into. At the very least, this legislation should be discussed in a lot of open meetings such that state stakeholders and citizens can present their concerns to their elected officials. This doesn’t appear to be the case, so the Rep Senators have not had sufficient time to represent their districts. Thurston gets my award for having committed the most egregious ethical violation. With legislation with this much of an economic impact on stakeholders in the state, he should have been very open and up-front of his intentions.

    2. The Senate Democrats and the Governor both have an ethical problem in that they appear to have created a voting block that may have been established coercively by placing pressure on each of these Senators. Winning an election is not a mandate to push through your legislation without compromise. Tyranny of the majority is unethical and bullying. Allowing time to air out this major legislation in open meetings, including Town Halls, must be done. This is very difficult given that this also gives enough time for corporate interests to run smear campaigns with their deep pockets. But if the Governor has true leadership skills, a compromise piece of legislation can be put in place. Dem Senators should not be coerced.

    3. The voters have an ethical problem for not asking more pointed questions to determine the detailed platforms of their elected officials. They also generally have ethical problems of being swayed by shallow advertising and not doing in-depth analysis of their elected officials.

    4. Cooper had an ethical breach by not telling Brandt of his own misgivings at the start. It seems to me to be unethical to not air your opinions to a group. As an elected official, you are a leader and must act as one. Sometimes being a leader means you have to stand up for what you believe even if you are a pariah. The silence allows this practice to flourish. If more people did it, the practice of shunning would go away.

    [Some might say Brandt for bullying…but not here. She understands that such a drastic bill requires it be held to the light of day. She should try her best to garner consensus and resist the tyranny of the majority. So far, she hasn’t used strong-arm tactics. Daily meetings are necessary to maintain this unity, but no coercive tactics should ever be used. Garner consensus through open, collaborative discussion and leadership.]

    5. Nothing is written here about how the Rep Senators maintained an open dialog with their constituents, but they must determine a method to allow their constituents to get a hold of them so that the Rep Senators can properly represent them. To do otherwise is to not ethically represent them.

    6. Alice should be fired. This was a blatant leak of confidential information. She works for Cooper, not Brandt. If she had difficulty keeping this confidentiality because she feared her future employment as a staffer, she should have been upfront with Cooper and not let him get bushwhacked.

    7. Parker committed an egregious ethical error by bushwhacking and intimidating Cooper. In an attempt to save his own job, he is obstructing what Cooper feels is the appropriate way to represent his constituency. The will of the constituency trumps a staff job. I believe Parker should know that is part of the territory of being a political staffer.

    I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this. I’ve never studied politics so my answers are probably very naive. My background is in computer science with a Master of Urban and Environmental planning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s