A U.S. senator who shoots from the hip

  • Ben Nighthorse Campbell sits astride his Harley in a Banana Republic ad


WASHINGTON, D.C. - How fitting it was that true celebrity came to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell not over a vote in Congress, or a speech, or even when he switched parties, but over advertising.

Briefly last year, Campbell was the "Banana Republican," a literal poster boy in advertisements for the Gap-Banana Republic clothing-store chain, whose marketers thought that the senator's rugged looks, his informal style, his Native American background and his motorcycle would provide just the right image.

Inconveniently, public policy intruded.

From 25 blocks away at George Washington University, Law Professor Jonathan Turley, who heads the Environmental Law Advocacy Center, threatened a boycott against Banana Republic for associating itself with this "extremist on environmental issues." Would the clothing chain, he asked, make similar use of "a senator with a racist, sexist or anti-Semitic record?"

Banana Republic folded. Campbell was furious. He descended on the university, where he pronounced Turley "a squirrel." For now, at least, Campbell's modeling career is over, and he'll have to make do with being a senator.

And being a senator may be less important to him, which explains why the Banana Republic flap was so fitting. The inspiration for using him had nothing to do with policy or politics, and everything to do with an image based on fashion, ethnicity and recreation. His reaction was blunt and colorful, if undignified. What could be more fitting for a senator better known for riding motorcycles and appearing tie-less on the Senate floor than for anything relating to government?

I should also mention that Jonathan Turley was both wrong and overwrought.

According to the League of Conservation Voters, Campbell's environmental voting record has been as low as 13 percent (in 1990) and as high as 69 (in 1987-88), averaging about 38 percent for his 10-year career as a lawmaker. That's not the record of an environmental extremist.

True, Campbell accepts without question the party line of the logging industry that Congress was confronted with the choice of "dead trees or dead people" when it passed the Salvage Logging Bill. In a recent, rambling interview, he also endorsed the contention of ranchers that "the (Clinton) administration was out to drive people who make a living off the public lands out of business' when it tried to raise grazing fees in 1993.

But unlike many other Western Republicans, Campbell does not ask how high whenever the resource extraction community issues its command to jump. He said he opposed efforts to transfer public land to the states. He pronounces himself an opponent of clearcutting, and does not think he can support Sen. Larry Craig's proposal to amend the forestry laws.

"Logging is just one facet to a multifaceted approach to managing public lands," Campbell said. "I really believe in a multi-use concept."

And need it be added that it is odious to compare someone who favors the extraction of natural resources with someone who favors systematic inequality based on race, sex or religion? When Ben Campbell says, "we can have a pretty darned manicured countryside and at the same time use those resources," he may be wrong, but he is not evil.

All of this helps explain why Ben Nighthorse Campbell is who he is, and specifically why he switched from Democrat to Republican two years ago. He is a politician for whom policy is less important than self-expression. He can't be an extremist because he has no ideology. In fact, for a senator, he isn't even very well informed. His judgments seem based more on his impressions and prejudices than on careful study.

He improvises more than he calculates. A calculating politician would not have switched parties. As a centrist Democrat he was a good bet for re-election. As a centrist Republican, he faces a possible primary challenge from the right by Rep. Scott McInnis and a tough general election campaign should he win the primary.

On the face of the evidence, Campbell became a Republican less because he disagreed with the Democrats on the issues - at least any more than he disagrees with Republicans - than because he found them personally distasteful. He felt that they didn't like him, that they condescended to him.

And as the Banana Republic boycott threat illustrates, he may have been right.

Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, tend to have a moralistic streak which impels them to take politics personally. The late Speaker Tip O'Neill acted that way toward the conservative Democratic "Boll Weevils' in the early 1980s, and drove some of them into the Republican Party. Texan Phil Gramm would have gone anyway. Others would probably have stayed.

Colorado's Democratic establishment never warmed up to Campbell. Few backed him for the Senate nomination in 1992, preferring either Josie Heath or former Gov. Dick Lamm. Campbell eked out a plurality victory, winning the election, but not the hearts of the party insiders.

"Ben and Linda (his wife) perceived some slights against them on the part of the Democratic hierarchy," said Ken Lane, who was Campbell's chief of staff for nine years. "Probably there was a little justification for that feeling."

In the view of Lane, and some other Coloradans who don't want to be identified, any such slights were not deliberate but the result of a cultural disconnect between Campbell's background in Durango and the more sophisticated Denver-Boulder milieu from which most of the state's top Democrats come.

"Ben's not just a West Sloper," said Lane, "he's a far south-southwest West Sloper. La Plata County has more in common with New Mexico than with Denver."

Asked whether he had personal problems with Colorado's leading Democrats, Campbell said, "That's an understatement," but he would not elaborate. "I'm sick to death of talking about changing parties," he said.

Would Campbell have stayed a Democrat if more Democrats had gone to lunch with him? Maybe, but there's one matter of personal-political dispute which goes beyond slighted feelings. In 1994, Campbell had a serious falling-out with his former aide, Sherrie Wolff, a very prominent, active Democrat in Colorado. He claimed that she was in financial trouble, and that she had threatened to file a sexual harassment claim against him unless he continued to pay her while she ran for secretary of state. She lost the election, probably because of his allegations.

At the end of a mediation process under the auspices of the Office of Senate Fair Employment Practices (now called the Office of Compliance), Campbell issued a statement on Aug. 25, 1994, saying that he had "no personal knowledge that Ms. Wolff is or was in financial trouble," conceding that she had "not filed a lawsuit in an attempt to extort or coerce action from me," and expressing "regret" for "any harm my comments ... may have caused Ms. Wolff or her family."

Campbell later denied that this statement constituted an apology.

He did not acknowledge the sexual harassment charges, and Wolff eventually decided not to pursue them, though she said in an interview that he regularly invited her to his room and made suggestive comments.

To Wolff, such behavior eventually became too intrusive to be laughed off. Others reacted differently. "Ben was always kind of a salty guy," said Carol Knight, another of his former employees. But Knight, who has lived in western Colorado herself, said she simply didn't take his saltiness seriously.

To be sure, if a senator had a consistent world view, even this contentious quarrel with a prominent activist would not lead him to switch parties. But if Campbell has even a not-so-consistent world view, it is well hidden. He is more interested in his Indian heritage, his jewelry and his motorcycles than in legislation, which may explain why he has not been a very effective legislator.

"No heavy lifting" is a common reaction from Republicans, Democrats and neutral Congress watchers when asked about Campbell. Early in February, officials of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium were in town. The consortium represents 29 colleges which enroll 25,000 students, precisely the visitors who would be expected to meet with the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Not this chairman. "None of us met personally with Sen. Campbell," said Norma Bixby, the board chairman at Dull Knife Tribal College in Montana. "He was pretty busy." They met with someone from his staff.

In fact, when it comes to issues, Campbell's name is associated with only two. One, which he has given up on for now, was his proposal to transform the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument into a national park.

Well, sort of a national park. Actually, it would have been little more than a name change and a few more restrooms and picnic areas to attract tourists. "It wasn't to give full park protection," Campbell said, "but to upgrade the facilities." In other words, it was a marketing ploy. It foundered on real park issues such as protection of the water flows through the proposed park.

The issue to which Campbell remains devoted is the Animas-La Plata dam and reservoir project. Last year, he brought a ceremonial pipe and eagle feathers onto the Senate floor as he spoke of the promise made to the tribes to give them water.

By most measurements, Campbell remains a political moderate. He is getting more conservative on natural resource issues - his LCV score went from 48 to 21 to 15 over the last three years - but natural resource issues are not his main concern. He is going to concentrate, he said, on the balanced budget amendment, product liability, crime control and Indian gambling.

He remains, though, a supporter of gun control, the higher minimum wage, and abortion rights. He even voted to uphold President Clinton's veto of the ban against intact dilation and evacuation, or "partial birth" abortions.

"But I've revised my opinion on the partial birth ban," he said. "I was injured real bad in the motorcycle accident, and in the hospital I talked to some doctors. They said those abortions were used simply as birth control."

But so are many other abortions. And assuming that the doctors who treated his injuries in Colorado last autumn were not obstetricians, their reports were hardly authoritative. By his own account, though, Campbell did not consult experts or ponder inconsistencies. That's not his way. It was as though it all fell into place for him - the accident, the doctors, the flash of recognition. Who knows? Had the injury been to his head instead of his arm, he might even have softened his opposition to laws requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.

He's the first postmodernist politician.

Jon Margolis, who usually drops in on Washington from Vermont, has temporarily moved to California, where he is doing research for a book and masquerading as a visiting scholar at the Institute of Government Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

High Country News Classifieds