Thursday, February 17, 2011

Chris Lee threw away great potential

From the 21 February 2011 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

I was a big Chris Lee fan.

I met Lee for the first time during his campaign for Congress in 2008. I was impressed with his vision for Washington. He saw a system that was broken and in part responsible for the recession that we were just getting into. He knew that the government-influenced market conditions needed to be made right again to facilitate a return to US-based manufacturing, the cure for what ailed our economy.

Almost 2 years later, he proved that he was more than talk. He visited my factory to address supply issues with the electrical grid and how those constraints were preventing the company from growing. What made that so unusual was that he took it upon himself to do that. I had never contacted him about the matter. He had heard about our plight from his father who heard about it from his Florida neighbor who is one of our customers. It was an impressive gesture by Lee. It showed that he cared and was motivated about issues of importance in his district.

The loved ones of the victims of Flight 3407 felt the same about Lee. Despite roadblocks galore (in the form of indifference from the FAA and members of Congress), he was successful as the leader of local officials in their drive to change airline regulations. He didn’t give up that fight and he improved airline safety, ensuring the prevention of a similar disaster while giving the grieving 3407 families some ray of hope.

Those examples show why Lee was a rising star in Congress. Politico had selected him as one of Washington’s “Rookies of the Year” in 2009, noting that he had his finger on the pulse of the issues, fashioning together teams of experts and interacting with affected constituents directly to fully educate himself so that he could make the best decisions possible.

Regardless, he had the flaws common to so many elected officials. Two of them quickly come to mind.

First, there was the matter of spending. In doing the people’s bidding, he was exceptionally hoggish on pork barrel spending, wholly or partially responsible for $29.7 million of earmarks that were dedicated to Western New York. Such projects included $4.6 million for high-speed rail and millions more spread across multiple defense contractors.

Secondly, there was the matter of his indiscretion, which ultimately became the defining moment of his short political career, even overshadowing his 3407 accomplishments. He joined the ranks of New York officials who, in recent years, have made truly stupid decisions involving the fairer sex (Eliot Spitzer and his prostitute, Sam Hoyt and his mistress, Mike Cole spending the night on the floor of an intern’s apartment) and even their own sex (Eric Massa and his “tickling” and groping of male staffers).

In this day and age of 24/7 news coverage and information shared instantaneously, he couldn’t get away with it like JFK did with Marilyn Monroe (which, ironically and hypocritically, is some sort of badge of honor for the Kennedy legacy). Even those who aren’t in the public eye can’t get away with it like they once did what with all of our modern technology and the trails we leave.

But, who cares about those factors anyways? They shouldn’t be in the position to desecrate marriage and their families to begin with. Famous or not, adultery is a serious character flaw. It’s just that the former pay for it more than the latter once discovered. Lee knew that, just as the others did. Yet, they took the risk and suffered the losses.

It’s not just their families who lose out. The voters do, too, which is odd since it’s debatable if politicians’ adultery really matters to them or not. If we had Eliot Spitzer as Governor the past few years rather than David Paterson, New York wouldn’t be in such a crisis as it is now. I guarantee it. His private life may have been messed up, but professionally, he excelled.

Likewise with Chris Lee. He had the potential to make his own congressional dynasty, something along the lines of a Republican version of John LaFalce in terms of tenure and regional impact. He was well-respected by constituents and his peers in Congress on both sides of the aisle. Harnessing the facilitator and bridge-builder skills he learned in business, he was someone who could get things done.

Unfortunately, we’ve lost that force. His potential will never be realized, thrown away on a whim.

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