At a farewell party for Pamela Stricker last week, one of the benefits of attending, besides the opportunity to wish Pam well in her new role as publisher of The Lima News and eat some delicious cake, was running into a number of friends including former State Sen. Cooper Snyder and his wife, Dorothy.
Cooper and Dorothy. I have seldom thought of one without the other. Back in the 1980s, I remember traveling to Columbus to “shadow” Cooper for a day as he went about his business in the Senate. Dorothy was there, and I spent as much time with her as I did him. It was an enjoyable day.
Cooper and Dorothy Snyder have always been a team. Cooper’s name may have been on the ballot, but in reality citizens were always electing them both. Dorothy was never on the payroll, but she was as much a part of Cooper’s service to Ohio as if she was his official chief of staff.
There are many couples like that in politics and government. Today, nepotism laws prevent an officeholder from hiring a spouse, and I think that’s sometimes a shame. Many privately-owned small businesses are operated by family members working together, and why wouldn’t you do that? Who do you trust more to be your closest advisor, confidante or employee than a spouse, parent, son or daughter?
Also back in the ‘80s, I covered the sheriff’s office on a daily basis, and Sheriff Hugh Rogers’ wife, Patsy, worked in the office for her husband. It was not illegal at the time, and it was a practice employed by many sheriffs around Ohio.
Some might say that it was improper, that it was just a way for elected officials to add more income to the household coffers. That was certainly one result, but in Patsy’s case she was a definite benefit to the office and a trusted onsite partner for the sheriff.
Most private companies have rules against nepotism, and they are understandable. My wife and I both work for the same company, but we are not allowed to be in positions where one supervises the other. I am not permitted to be Lora’s boss, which is a shame because then there would be at last one part of our lives where I felt I could tell her what to do.
Today, unlike in the days of Hugh Rogers, the sheriff is not allowed to employ his wife, so Jacquie Barrera – a longtime administrative assistant at the sheriff’s office – has been volunteering her time there since her husband Donnie took over last November.
There are some who are critical of that, and I understand some of their concerns. But my own feeling is that it’s a shame that Jacquie’s 30-plus years of experience and skill in the justice system cannot be put to official paid use in the department just because her husband is sheriff. Sometimes ethics laws, though well meaning, are counterproductive to what would best serve the community and its citizens.
There are some people who cannot adjust to the involvement of spouses in the lives of candidates or officeholders. About 10 years ago, I worked in West Virginia for the campaign of John Raese, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate against the late Robert C. Byrd. (Well, Byrd was alive at the time, but in West Virginia he still would have won even if he wasn’t.)
John’s wife, Liz, was always very involved in John’s various campaigns. I recall one top staffer being very upset by the amount of time he spent fielding phone calls from Liz. He finally told her that he worked for John, not for her. Do I need to explain that about two days later he was no longer with the campaign?
I’ve worked in many situations where spouses were closely involved with the campaign or government office of their husband or wife. It never bothered me. You just had to recognize that you were working for a team.
In fact, as a staff member I sometimes thought I could take good advantage of it. If there was something I wanted the candidate or officeholder to do, one good way of making it happen was to get the spouse on board with the idea.
“Hey Liz, John doesn’t want to attend the Apple Festival on Saturday, but there are going to be about 5,000 people there and I think it would be good for him to be there.”
“OK, I’ll talk to him about it.”
About an hour later, I get a call from John saying that he has changed his mind and will attend the Apple Festival after all. Thanks, Liz.
Certainly, there have been cases where government officials doled out jobs to family members who, in turn, did not do the work and simply sat back and collected a paycheck. Such instances no doubt helped lead to the nepotism laws we have today.
But we threw out the baby with the bath water. There are plenty of people who are unrelated to their employers but who take advantage of the system, not performing the jobs they were hired to perform. It’s wrong, whether it’s a relative or not. But if you have a highly qualified individual who can do a good job, why shouldn’t you be able to hire them to do it whether they’re related to you or not?
There are many examples in local, regional, state and national politics of unofficial husband and wife partnerships in elected offices. In most local cases, an officeholder these days can’t pay his or her spouse to work in the office, so spouses end up working for free, either behind the scenes or more visibly. But even pro bono work can draw criticism.
I don’t have a problem with it. Just as “two for the price of one” deals are gobbled up by shoppers at stores, the same economic benefits can apply when it comes to husband and wife teams in politics and government, especially when the qualifications justify the work.
Reach Gary Abernathy at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.
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