Politics makes strange allies, as Rep. Merrill Cook is finding out after an old friend of his - U.S. Term Limits - is applauding Cook's Democratic opponent this year, Lily Eskelsen.
And now a related group - Americans For Limited Terms - will buy "substantial" TV ads in Salt Lake urging citizens to force Cook to sign the U.S. Term Limits pledge to serve only six years in Congress. If he does sign - which he says he won't - the advocacy group will pull or change the TV ads so as not harm Cook's re-election, says Eric O'Keefe, president of Americans For Limited Terms.Cook says he refused to sign the pledge "even after I was blackmailed" by a U.S. Term Limits official. "Huey Ridge called me up two months ago and said if I didn't sign the pledge, he'd make sure there was a (advertising) campaign run against me in the district that would cost more than $100,000. I told him to go to h---," an angry Cook told the Deseret News on Wednesday.
Cook and U.S. Term Limits were close partners in the 1994 Cook-inspired citizen initiative drive. The effort put a term-limit law for local and federal officials and an election run-off provision on the ballot that year. For various reasons, including the Utah Legislature's own quickly passed term-limit law, the citizen initiative failed at the ballot box.
Now U.S. Term Limits cheers Eskelsen because she signed the group's three-term (six years) pledge for U.S. House members.
However, Cook - long an advocate of term limits - did pledge in the Vote Smart candidate questionnaire to serve only 12 years. "I believe in term limits - I've voted for every term limit bill that's come up in the House, even a six-year term limit. I'm the father of term limits in Utah. I don't trust (U.S. Term Limits' leader) Paul Jacob," said Cook on Tuesday.
Besides its TV ads, which O'Keefe says start running this week, Americans For Limited Terms sent out a mailer in the 2nd District criticizing Cook for refusing to sign the U.S. Term Limits pledge and praising Eskelsen.
The mailer clearly misrepresents Cook's stand on term limits, says Caroline Roemer, Cook's campaign manager.
Cook said that Americans For Limited Terms is a front organization for U.S. Term Limits. Not so, said O'Keefe. "We do work closely with U.S. Term Limits. We are separate." O'Keefe declined to disclose who gives the group money. He said his group is not a federal political action committee, since it doesn't advocate that citizens vote for this or that candidate, only educates citizens on who has pledged to limit their terms in Congress or state office, and so doesn't have to follow FEC rules.
While declining to say how much it will spend in the 2nd District, O'Keefe said overall his group will spend $8.5 million on advocacy in federal races this year. It's active with print and electronic ads in 24 or 25 races running up to the Nov. 3 election day, he added. Its TV ads will mention Cook by name and in some of the ads praises Eskelsen for signing the 6-year pledge.
There were some hard feelings between Cook and U.S. Term Limits' Jacob after the 1994 citizen initiative campaign. Cook, at the recommendation of U.S. Term Limits officials, hired several professional initiative voter signature collectors.
Unfortunately, it turned out in reviewing the initiative petitions, the lieutenant governor's office and county clerks found a number of apparently forged or duplicate signatures on some of the petition booklets circulated by the people U.S. Term Limits recommended and Cook hired.
It was an embarrassment to Cook and a blow to the citizen initiative drive's credibility. Cook and other signature gathers had more than enough valid signatures, however, and got the measures on the ballot.
Roemer says because Cook does believe in term limits - and has pledged to limit himself to 12 years in office (six two-year terms) and promised to support a constitutional amendment limiting congressmen's terms in office - it is inaccurate and unfair now for U.S. Term Limits and Americans For Term Limits to criticize Cook.
And praising Eskelsen is less than sincere, says Roemer. On her Vote Smart questionnaire, Eskelsen puts "undecided" on whether to support a constitutional term limit amendment and leaves blank a space where she could have said what length of term limits she supports.
Roemer hints that Eskelsen had a recent conversion to term limits in order to get the anti-Cook advertisements.
Eskelsen says she cut no deal with U.S. Term Limits. She said she didn't know that Cook had refused to sign the U.S. Term Limits pledge, doesn't know who Americans For Limited Terms is and found out about its mailing when she got one at her home two weeks ago, she said.
Eskeslen adds: "I feel comfortable telling (2nd District constituents) that I will set myself a deadline of six years, work hard, then go back into the real world and live with the laws I helped pass."
She said that too often politicians think about the next election, not the next generation. "They get used to the perks and privileges of office and forget about what it's like living in the real world. Well, I'm coming from the real world and I'll gladly go back to it."
"We don't support candidates," said a U.S. Term Limits spokesman. However, the group does publicize which candidates have signed its pledge and U.S. Term Limits president Paul Jacob is in Salt Lake and will personally praise Eskelsen in a Wednesday afternoon press conference.