Slavery is bad, mmkay, but so is moral cowardice

Let’s put aside for a moment the most outrageous part of the recently unveiled videotape of Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, R-Gardnerville, saying he’d vote to bring back slavery if his constituents favored it.

There’s something almost as bad that comes just before that indefensible remark: Wheeler freely admitting he already voted for a bill that he believed to be unconstitutional because his constituents supported it.

The bill was Senate Bill 243 of the 2013 session, a law that required the collection of DNA from people arrested on felony charges, before any trial or conviction. Wheeler said he believes the law was unconstitutional, given the Fourth Amendment’s protections against search-and-seizure absent a warrant based on an individual suspicion tying someone to a crime. (And, while a Maryland case held a similar law was constitutional, Nevada’s statute has key differences and has yet to be tested in court.)

But notwithstanding those concerns, Wheeler voted for it, after a survey of his constituents found they favored it 3-to-1. “But I was hired to do a job, what the people wanted me to do,” Wheeler told a small Republican gathering on the tape. “So if it is clear to me, even if it’s against my own wishes, what my constituents want, that’s the way I’m going to vote.”

And then he went on — unbidden by the crowd — to say his conviction in the matter was so strong that if his constituents favored the return of slavery, he’d reluctantly vote for that, too.

This is not simply moral idiocy (who favors slavery, under any circumstances?) or a misapprehension of the job of an elected official, it’s pure cowardice. Any person who would deny his own conscience to do the bidding of a majority of people, even if he thinks they are wrong, has no business being anywhere near public office. (And it’s not just me saying so; state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson, R-Las Vegas, suggested on Monday that Wheeler find a new line of work.)

Let’s put it in terms that Wheeler’s Northern Nevada Republican constituents might better appreciate: guns. A 12-year-old boy recently took a gun to school and killed a popular teacher. What would Wheeler do if a majority of his constituents — gripped by the grief and passions of the moment — declared to him their desire to ban all firearms? Would he do it? Or would he give the correct answer: The Constitution, which I swore an oath to uphold, specifically forbids banning guns. To hear Wheeler tell it, it could be the former.

Oh, wait. After the video was publicized on Twitter, Wheeler realized the error of his ways, calling his remark “a clearly facetious statement” (it was not) using an “over-the-top example of something that I absolutely do not agree with” (so why bring it up?). He said he’d rather lose an election or resign before he’d vote for slavery.

So, he lied to those people at the Republican meeting? He got a little bit of heat and his solemn conviction of doing whatever his constituents want, no matter his personal views, goes right out the window? He lacks the courage of even his ill-founded, little-considered convictions? Is there any greater reason for the residents of District 39 to re-think their choice of assemblyman?

But here’s the thing: Wheeler has already demonstrated he really believes what he said at that meeting. By his own admission, he’s voted for at least one bill that he believed was unconstitutional — notwithstanding his oath — because his constituents favored it. And if he’s done it once, he’ll do it again.

Nobody thinks a bill to legalize slavery will ever come before the Nevada Legislature. But the job requires someone who will use his moral judgment, life experience, and the superior information available to elected officials to cast intelligent votes, sometimes directly in the face of public disapproval. In fact, if memory serves, that’s partly how we began to rid ourselves of slavery to begin with.

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist, and author of the blog Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or