The Defining Generation
Defining the Future of Politics
Defining the Future of Politics
An Act of Congress
It was absolutely one of the worst days of my life and I literally came home in tears. "I don't know why I let YOU and all those other people talk me into this. I just don't belong here!" I said none-too-kindly to Doug. Then, sobbing between tears, I tried to explain all that had happened.
It was the fall of 2003 and I, at the ripe old age of 46, had just finished new student orientation at Colorado State University-Pueblo to enroll as a Junior. It had been a miserable and totally humiliating afternoon, and was an experience I'd never have willingly subjected myself to. All of the other students were young--VERY young. I had children of my own that were older than they were. I felt conspicuous and out of place until at last I spotted one other lady who was about my age and walked over to introduce. Then, to my increased embarrassment, I learned that she was the mother of one of the incoming students.
It also seemed that all of the other incoming students were smart, determined, and had some sense of what they wanted to do. I had never considered myself smart or academically inclined and furthermore, I had no idea where I wanted to go with all this. When, after a brief welcome the faculty advised students to go to specific rooms based on their chosen Major, I tried to slink inconspicuously into the one room reserved for the "Undecided."
"So what Major did you decide on?" Doug interrupted to ask excitedly.
"Political Science," I announced tentatively.
Doug looked surprised. "Why did you chose THAT," he responded incredulously, and then after a long pause stated flatly, "You know I won't be able to help you much with THAT."
My heart sank even lower. Doug has always been something of a historian and more recently had spent all his time building a website about American history. I had chosen Political Science for two reasons, one--it looked like it would be interesting and, two--an education in that field might enable me to help Doug with his website. Now as Doug explained that his web efforts had NOTHING to do with politics, I suddenly felt alone and confronted by a future of academic work far above my abilities.
"Maybe I'll just drop out," I announced. "I never should have done this in the first place."
My late-in-life quest for a college degree came about entirely by accident. As a child I had never considered myself "smart" and struggled to get passing grades. My report cards from the period are filled with teacher's notes, generally to the effect that "Pam is a smart girl but needs to pay more attention in class." I always thought that the teachers had put "smart" in there to soften the blow.
and my work with Medal of Honor recipients to promote patriotic education
While Doug certainly is quite smart, he is equally impractical. In January 1998 he gave notice to our company that he was leaving to build a museum. While he began concerning himself with the structure, design, and lay-out of a $6 million dream, as the practical one I began to worry about more important things--like how we would pay rent, feed the kids, etc. Doug is the kind who will follow a dream while believing everything is going to work out. "Don't worry Pam," he would tell me. "We'll make it. We always have." There were no concrete plans or even vague ideas for our financial security and, while Doug could dismiss them, I could not. I was extremely worried for our future.
"Why don't you both go to college while Dad is working on this," our oldest daughter told me a week before we were scheduled to depart our managerial jobs. It was something I would never have considered--after all, I thought only SMART people and RICH people went to college. Jennifer explained to me that we would qualify for grants and loans that would not only pay for tuition and books, but give us money that could help pay rent and groceries while we were in school. She also explained to me about scholarships, though to me the idea of ever getting any kind of scholarship was pretty hard to believe possible. Surprisingly, it didn't take much for her to convince me. The promise of at least some money coming in to keep us alive while Doug followed his dream overcame my own reservations about going back to school.
Doug wasn't such an "easy sell," he had his own big plans and didn't want classes consuming time he might otherwise spend building his museum, which was still nothing more than a big idea based on a cardboard model. I stood my ground on this one however, determined that our "kids wouldn't starve because of Doug's big dreams." Finally, and not really happy about it, Doug told me to go ahead and sign us both up for classes at Pueblo Community College (PCC). "What classes do you want to take?" I asked him. He gruffly advised me to sign him up for whatever I wanted. A few hours later I called him to advise that he was going to start school the following week to major in Computer Information Systems. I was going to be taking Business Technology classes that one day might enable me to get a medical transcription job that would allow me to work from home.
Doug's earlier antagonism aside, he quickly began to enjoy going back to school. He immersed himself in computers and excelled. Within months he gave up on building a $6 million brick-and-mortar museum to generate a "virtual museum" online where he felt he could reach even more people. (Today his website gets 12 million hits a month.) Two years later he graduated from PCC with a 4.0 Grade Point Average. During his last semester as a student in fact, he was even hired as adjunct faculty to teach some of the classes. He still teaches there today.
On the other hand I went much slower. While Doug was getting his degree I went to PCC part time while taking various part-time jobs to supplement our income. I greatly enjoyed returning to school, found even that I did well, and was even inducted into the Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) National Honor Society. The pursuit of my practical, job-seeking business degree was further delayed when I started taking many computer-related classes both as a matter of personal interest and because I thought it might enable me to help Doug with his website.
My college advisor was Esther Williams, a dedicated professional who also headed up the school's PTK program. She also became one of my dearest friends. As my pursuit of a 2-year degree extended into its fifth year however, she began pushing me to "cut the umbilical cord" and move on. "There's always CSU, or other 4-year colleges," she would tell me. "I know you like it here but you can't stay at PCC forever." Of course, I could not envision myself going on to a REAL college, and knew that graduating from PCC would end what had become a very pleasant experience in my life.
While Esther was preparing me practically and emotionally for graduation and further education, I tried to respect our friendship and her confidence in my by "playing along" while planning to graduate and find a good, even if low-paying, job as a transcriptionist. One day in my last semester she called me into her office and handed me a stack of papers to fill out. She advised me that every community college was allowed to recommend two people for the "All Colorado Academic Team." The program, sponsored by USA Today, would then choose a select few of the finalists for the "All-USA Academic Team." Though I had surprisingly achieved a 3.8 GPA, I still didn't see myself as smart but, when Esther told me that selection also included public service criteria, I at least understood her reasoning.
I was honored even to be recommended for the team, even though I knew I didn't have a chance. I put off filling out the paperwork until the last minute, and did so the day before it was due only after Esther called me and chewed me out. That evening when I came into Esther's office she looked over the paperwork and then said, "You didn't write the essay for the scholarship they are giving to attend the university." I explained that I had no intention of going to the university when I graduated. "But if they paid your way to go you would, wouldn't you?" she asked. I grudgingly said I would, and then dutifully sat down to write while Esther patiently waited, determined NOT to let me off the hook. I then thanked her for her confidence, went home, and forgot all about it.
A few months later and shortly before graduation I received two letters in the mail. One said that I had been selected for the USA Today All-America Second Team. The other advised that I was a Guistewhite Finalist, though I didn't know what that meant. I called Esther to tell her of the first letter and she was immediately excited and asked me to bring in the letter. I was, she said, only the second person in the history of our school to be selected.
A short time letter as Esther looked over the two letters she suddenly erupted into a level of excitement I had never seen. "Pam," she said, "you didn't tell me about Guistewhite on the phone."
"Well," I responded, "I didn't even know what that meant. Is that good?"
"Good? Pam, never in the history of our school has one of our students received BOTH. You've made history, and now you are going to the University. That is the scholarship I made you write the essay for."
final weeks at PCC, leading up to graduation with the Class of 2003, was
an exciting and heady time. I was honored at the National PTK convention
at which, ironically enough I met a niece the age of my daughter who was
attending from a community college in
Summer however, was a nervous time. I believed my success at PCC was a fluke. Good grades had required hard work for me but I brushed the accomplishments aside by noting, "That was a community college. Doing well there was fairly easy. But NOW I'm going to have to go to a REAL university." In great fear and trepidation I tried to convince myself to just go get a job and forget about a bachelors degree. I had plenty of arguments, not the least of which was that while the Guistewhite Scholarship was prestigious, it only amounted to $250 per semester. I felt pressure from PCC President Mike Davis, PTK alumni, former school friends and above all, Esther Williams, to go on and succeed and not let them down. Thus it was I found myself in August attending an orientation that proved to be one of the most discouraging days of my life.
This time it was Doug who was adamant about school. "You can't drop out," he told me. "It will just kill Esther if you don't go on."
"Esther retired this summer," I told him. "It's not that big a deal now."
"Yes, but you are still friends and you know she and others are counting on you," he came back. Each time I tried to find an excuse to quit, Doug came back with more reasons to go on. Finally, exhausted from crying and perhaps even somewhat enamored by Doug's own confidence in me, I reluctantly agreed to give it my best effort.
One of the first things I learned at CSU-Pueblo, after the fact that I was old enough to be most students' mother, was how different the field of Political Science could be from other fields of study. Unlike math and business where one plus one equals two, Science where two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen equal water, or English where a double-negative equals a positive, there are few absolutes in Political Science. The sheer objective nature of the subject made it a breeding ground for controversy and some rather interesting debate, especially in view of the fact that I have always been a very conservative Republican and most of my classmates were equally liberal Democrats. It seemed further that most of the professors gloried in identifying themselves among the latter.
I gravitated towards Dr. Gayle Berardi, who seemed to be the only rational
and conservative of my professors. In her presence as well as in her
classes I could share my own political beliefs without drawing immediate
castigation. In fact, she always respected my opinion, encouraged me in my
efforts, and in 2005 nominated me to "Who's Who in
In contrast was Dr. Collette Carter, arguably the loudest and meanest professor in the university system. She was left-of-liberal and proud to admit it; the first day I walked into her class I knew we would never get along. During classroom discussions if I made a comment with which she (and usually most of the class) disagreed, she would look at me and say in a condescending tone of voice, "Now Pam, how can you even say that." Fortunately, though I've always felt rather insecure, I'm also very opinionated. Rather than slinking back in my chair in embarrassment, I would stand to my feet and go toe-to-toe with my professor to validate my point, the two of us arguing back and forth while the rest of the class looked on in amusement.
Things could be even worse in what was meant to be a private conversation in Dr. Carter's office. I recall one day when I went in to see her to clarify an assignment and, as we talked, somehow the conversation turned to the subject of abortion. Her shouts could be heard all the way down the hall and I later learned that one of the other professors in an adjoining office had remarked to someone, "Oh, no, Pam's got Dr. Carter started again."
Sadly, during my senior year I heard through the grapevine that at least one student had complained about Dr. Carter's manner of instruction, and that she had been confronted by school administrators. I did notice that she tamed down considerably my last year in school and I certainly missed the "old Dr. Carter." I can honestly say today that there are few women I admire more than Dr. Collette Carter, a professor who was always at her best when she was at her worst.
graduation Dr. Carter was a guest in our home for dinner more than once,
and I learned even more about her. As a young Black woman she grew up in
the South where she witnessed the injustices of rampant and violent racism
and subsequently devoted her early life to the Civil Rights movement. As a
Peace Corps Volunteer to
the end of my first year at CSU I was visiting with Dr. Carter in her
office one day when she looked across her desk and told me, "Pam, I
really respect you." I almost fell out of my chair and, when at last
I recovered enough to respond I asked why. She told me, "Political
views aren't as important as being involved with people and giving back to
community." Three months later when I returned in September 2005,
Doug and my attention was diverted by our work in
learned a lot about the
It all started innocently enough when our class was assigned by Dr. Carter, as a final exam, to write a "policy analysis" paper. We were to research an issue and develop a policy to address it or to examine existing policy and seek how to improve it. For weeks I struggled to determine what subject to do my own paper on. In fact, my subject was right under my own roof.
As a result of Doug's website, which lists and tells the stories of Medal of Honor recipients and other military heroes, he was constantly being inundated with emails identifying heroes he had missed and left off. Most were in fact, frauds whose tales of heroism and often official-looking citations were lies and counterfeit. As a result he found himself confronting bogus heroes repeatedly and working closely with the F.B.I. to deal with the issue.
Agent Thomas Cottone, Jr., was at the time the F.B.I.'s lead agent on
issues of medals fraud and, working closely with Doug had become a friend
to both of us. Often he and Doug would vent their frustration at the
loopholes in Title 18 of the U.S. Code that allowed bogus heroes to escape
prosecution. At that time the law allowed prosecution of individuals who
physically wore medals they hadn't earned, but with few teeth, it was
considered a minor infraction that few Federal Attorneys would pursue. Far
more frequent were cases where imposters simply could not be prosecuted
because they didn't physically WEAR the medals. One case I learned of was
that of Michael O'Brien, an Illinois District Judge. Judge O'Brien had TWO
actual Medals of Honor hanging prominently in his court room and published
in his biographical material that he had earned both in
Veterans Day a newspaper in
We students had been instructed to advise Dr. Carter in advance as to the subject matter of our paper and, quite frankly, she was not too thrilled with my choice. She asked me why I had selected that subject and I explained to her the problems the F.B.I. was experiencing with phony war heroes. "I want to write this paper not just for a grade," I said. "I plan to use that paper to get the law changed and amend Title 18 to address the problem."
Carter just looked at me as if I was a naïve young girl who had just
crawled out from under a rock in the dark ages. "Pam," she said,
"don't get your hopes up. That would take an act of Congress." I
turned the paper in on
Despite my education I was, I admit, a pretty naïve and idealistic student back then, one who knew little about the "nuts and bolts" of the political process. In January, as the "token Republican" on campus (though that is certainly an over-generalization), I was asked to try and schedule Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo to speak on immigration. He accepted and during his visit I presented him with a copy of my paper on medals fraud. As Dr. Carter no doubt could have expected and perhaps would have warned me had she not wished to "rain on my parade," I never heard back from him. Still, I remained optimistic and determined.
following month we received a call from Sal Pace, District Director for
our new Congressman, John T. Salazar. In the general election of 2003 Doug
and I, disgusted with the dirty political campaign of the Republican
running for a seat in the vacant
Following that meeting I returned excitedly to my classes at CSU-Pueblo to advise Dr. Carter, "My paper is going to be introduced as a bill in Congress."
"Great," she replied. "Who is going to carry the bill?"
"Congressman John Salazar."
"Oh no!" she gasped. "That's the kiss of death." I asked why and she answered simply, "Because he's a Democrat." At that time Republicans held the majority of both Houses.
"But," I protested, "this is a non-partisan bill."
"Pam," she said, much like a wise mother counsels an innocent daughter, "there is no such thing as a non-partisan bill."
I remained undiscouraged and chalked Dr. Carter's reaction up to her cynical and negative view of the American political process. Working with Congressman Salazar's staff we decided to call the bill the "Stolen Valor Act of 2005," naming the legislation for the acclaimed 1998 book by B.G. Jug Burkett and Gina Whitley that had first brought public attention to the issue of medals fraud and phony veterans. In fact, in July when John Salazar introduced H.R. 3352, the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, Burkett himself joined the Congressman for the press conference. Within days the bill was co-sponsored by some two dozen Democrats, a couple Republicans, and had received the endorsement of the F.B.I. Agents Association, Military Order of the Purple Heart, and others. I was personally thrilled and excitedly confident that my paper was going to become the basis of a new law. Boy was I in for an education!
As luck would have it, the Stolen Valor Act was announced in the same week the movie "Wedding Crashers" was released. During one scene in that movie the characters used bogus Purple Hearts, awarded for wound in combat, to impress and pick up girls. Introduction of the bill was seen as a knee-jerk reaction to the film…never mind that I had been working on it for six months…and garnered immediate media attention. Doug and I appeared on FOX News to promote the bill and we quickly gained several new sponsors in Congress, but then the members took a 3-week August recess and the excitement died down quickly.
When I returned for my last year of classes in September my bill had been remanded to the House Judiciary Committee. My professors, while patting me on the back for my limited success, cautioned me against optimism by reminding me what they had taught us in class, "Congressional Committees are where proposed bills are sent to die." The struggle via mail and phone to gain more Congressional so-sponsors met limited success and things began looking bleak. We had somewhere around 70 bi-partisan co-sponsors for the bill, but Republicans comprised only about a third of the total. I felt frustrated…here I was, a loyal Republican and the person who wrote the bill, and I was being ignored by my own party simply because MY bill had been introduced by a Democrat. It just didn't seem fair.
November, for Veterans Day, Senator Kent Conrad of
During the fall and into my spring semester while applying myself to my studies, I also worked hard to try and get my bill passed by Congress. Time and again I returned to Dr. Carter, Dr. Briardi, and Dr. Mark Gose, a new professor in our department and a former Air Force officer, for advice and assistance. Frankly, while everyone at CSU-Pueblo was proud of the fact that my paper had actually even been introduced as a bill, none really thought that it would go any further. Still they encouraged me, knowing how frustrated I was becoming and how determined I was to make it happen.
spring I was selected to represent
I have great respect for Dr. Carter and was finally beginning to see that what she had said previously was not simply a reflection of her cynicism about Congress--it was the fact of life. Still, what she proposed I do was simply WRONG in my mind. The end does NOT justify the means. Congressman Salazar had demonstrated enough belief in my paper to introduce the bill, and I refused to turn my back on a loyal friend.
I voiced as much in a subsequent conversation with Dr. Briardi. "Good for you Pam. Do what you think is right. You CAN beat the system." Her words aside, I'm convinced that even then while sincerely hoping that I would beat the system, Dr. Briardi knew in her heart that I was swimming against the current in a sea of impossibility.
following week Doug and I drove to
"Then you need to help me with this," I responded.
He said, "I am a co-sponsor."
"That's not enough," I replied firmly. "Doug and I have endorsed you, but we are here today because you want us to do more than just put our names down as supporters--you want us to go out and advocate for you. The same thing is true with my bill. I appreciate that you were one of the FIRST co-sponsors, but now I need you to go out and advocate for my bill." He promised me that he would see what he could do and remains today one of the men in public life I admire most. He was true to his word far beyond what I could have expected.
weeks later and just prior to my trip to
Most of my activities in D.C. were consumed with the process we were there to learn as members of the Model House of Representatives, but I did find time to meet Senator Conrad's staff and to lobby my bill in several House and Senate offices. I returned in time for Memorial Day during which it seemed bogus heroes were coming out of the woodwork. Doug and/or I made repeated appearances on FOX News, ABC's Good Morning America, and scores of other broadcast shows. In the Senate we had more than 2 dozen co-sponsors, equally divided along party lines and including some of the Senate's most recognized names. In the House our list of co-sponsors was over 100, still 2/3s Democrat, but improving. Even with all the support and publicity however, it appeared my bill was going to be lost to the upcoming election.
It wasn't so much that election activities overshadowed the Stolen Valor Act as it remained partisan. The Chief of Staff of one Colorado Republican Congressman had earlier explained it to me this way: "In an election year, we (Republicans) simply cannot allow a Freshman Democrat in a vulnerable district get credit for passing a major piece of legislation." For the first time I learned that my bill was stymied not only by partisanship but by strategy. In the U.S. House of Representatives a Freshman is considered vulnerable by the opposing party, and target for reclaiming a seat when he or she runs the first time for re-election. It is almost an unwritten rule in Congress that a Freshman is not going to get a major bill passed…save for perhaps an innocuous renaming of a post office or some other simple legislative matter.
soared on the morning of September 8 when Doug, unable to sleep got up
and went through his routine Google news search on the words "stolen
valor." Moments later he was waking me up shouting, "Your bill
My instructors at CSU-Pueblo were ecstatic…and dumbfounded. While they had taught political process for decades, none had ever personally found themselves involved in what I was now facing. I even found myself having to explain to one or two of my former instructors what the Suspension Calendar* was in the U.S. House, and how it handled legislation.
On the home front Doug and I began working around the clock, phone calls, faxes, anything we could do to muster new support in the U.S. House. The indications we began receiving were not encouraging. The Senate bill was now side-by-side with the House bill in the Judiciary Committee, and the Republican House leadership seemed unwilling to move it forward.
In late September "Army Times" printed the bill's obituary. The opening line of the story read: "In a major legislative reprieve for posers who claim to rate combat decorations they didn’t earn, the House Judiciary Committee failed to take action on a Senate-approved bill outlawing medals fraud during the committee’s last meeting before Congress adjourns Oct. 1."
One of the most frustrating things about the now-nearly-certain death of my bill was how close we had come to success. After passing the Senate it would have required only a few minutes of time by the Majority Leadership of the House, which virtually controls all opportunity for any bill, to place it on the Suspension Calendar and schedule it for a vote. Doug and I targeted three people in particular, Speaker of the House, the Majority Whip, and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee--all of whom are Republicans and all of which seemed determined not to budge. While every Congressman and Congresswoman returned home in October to prepare for the November election, we did our best to resurrect the Stolen Valor Act from its partisan-motivated fate.
bitterly and stubbornly partisan can politicians be? Consider that from
mid-September to the end of October we worked with literally thousands of
supporters to bombard the offices of House Leadership with letters and
calls to moved the Stolen Valor Act forward. CSU-Pueblo President Dr. Richard Garcia
and Pueblo Chieftain publisher
Bob Rawlings sent personal letters to all three targeted Republicans.
more than anything however, pure luck once again smiled on us. On Veterans
Day the speaker for events in
simultaneously Doug uncovered another fraud from Veterans Day. This
400-pound man, wearing multiple high awards including the Navy Cross and
Silver Star, was photographed at a Marine Corps League function in St.
Louis, ironically enough a city within the Congressional District of the
Majority Whip we had been targeting for a month. ABC News reported the
man's fraud with a headline that read: "Phony Marine--too Fat to be
Real." As the story developed further a reporter for FOX News in
"Call him back," Doug advised, "and ask him why, if he is willing to co-sponsor it in the next Congress, he doesn't just move the current bill to the Suspension Calendar so Congress can vote on it when then come back next week (first week of December). It would only take five minutes for Congress to pass this bill."
Thursday, November 30, we received a call from Senator Conrad's office.
The House Judiciary Committee had contacted them to advise that they were
willing to place the previously passed Senate version of the Stolen
Valor Act on the Suspension Calendar. One week later on
weeks later on
Perhaps the success of that effort in which a Freshman Congressman from the minority party accomplished what is politically unfathomable was best summed up as well in a story in "Roll Call" that said: "The most astounding part of this story perhaps is the fact that the Sterners are lifelong Republicans, and Salazar is a Democrat. But it’s that partisan divide that ultimately carried the Stolen Valor Act to the finish line, according to Salazar.
think divided houses work so much better, because of the balance of
power,” Salazar said. “That’s what most Americans want — both
parties to get along and address the issues that work for
* The Suspension Calendar is a part of U.S. House legislative procedure for non-controversial bills. It takes its name from the fact that these rules go to the floor with the suspension of the rules for normal procedure--such bills do not require a hearing. Suspension items are presented on the floor at the discretion of House Leadership where discussion is very limited, and where they must then garner a 2/3ds plurality of those members of Congress present for a vote.
Gottlieb, Tom, "An Act for Valor," Roll
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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