PERRY: Sobering thought – state Rep. Dan Pabon should step down for drunken driving

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I’m taking sides. State Rep. Dan Pabon should resign because he was caught driving drunk last month.

Like most of Colorado would probably agree, that’s not an easy conclusion to come to. First and foremost, Pabon — a Democrat representing north Denver — is a smart, affable, honest and forthright state legislator. Right off that sets him apart from a lot of his peers on both sides of the aisle.

It’s difficult to come to that decision, too, because I’m a forgiving guy, and I strongly believe in all that comes with that. It means that I have realistic expectations of people, who naturally make all kinds of mistakes.

Pabon was not only forthcoming, but excruciatingly emotional March 21 on the floor of the House, when he disclosed that he’d been arrested for drunken driving on St. Patrick’s Day. He was forthcoming to the media in saying that he’d had a beer at a political event for craft brewing, and then went to dinner and drank another four or five beers before getting into his car when he clearly shouldn’t have. Police pulled him over making an illegal turn and he failed a roadside test.

After doing everything wrong, Pabon did everything right about coming clean about his “lapse.”

He certainly isn’t the first state lawmaker to get popped for drunken driving, the real term for what we legally and euphemistically call “driving under the influence or while impaired.” There are websites dedicated to cataloging all sorts of elected officials pegged for driving drunk. Pabon’s name isn’t there, yet. But GOP state Senate President Bill Cadman’s is. He blew slightly less than an 0.08 while driving through Castle Rock one night in 2004 and was later convicted of DWAI.

Should he have resigned when he got popped? Yes. Should he now? No.

Despite my belief that we’re all just fallible humans and deserving of making good on bad choices, and despite my agreeing with much of the rest of the world that rolls their eyes at destructive American piety and hypocrisy, I believe that some professions should be held to not just high standards, but the highest.

Police, judges, prosecutors and especially elected lawmakers forfeit credibility when they break a wide range of laws. People who create and enforce the laws must be worthy of trust. Should a cop who racked up his or her own drunken driving tickets be allowed to hand them out to others? Would he or she be overly sympathetic? Possibly the opposite? Would a judge facing his own sentencing be more or less lenient toward others in the same situation?

One thing I learned as a young journalist was that my profession, too, is often held to a higher standard. And that it isn’t just your actions that are judged, but what the public perceives your actions to be. It’s that very perception of impropriety — the possibility of it — that undermines credibility. In my business, if you’re caught fudging quotes, sources or material, you’re toast. I’ve had my heart broken on more than one occasion having to hold my peers to that unequivocal bar during their “lapse.”

Pabon no longer has credibility when it comes to weighing in on drunken driving issues and bills. And drunk driving is a big problem in Colorado. So are other fines, jail limits, marijuana intoxication issues and dozens more like it.

Pabon is now damaged goods when it comes to those and many other legislative issues — not because he might not be able to be objective about issues, but because he will be perceived to be prejudiced because of his own trouble.

I asked several people whether they think a legislator pegged for drunken driving should step down. Most said no. He should have another chance. But when I ask if he should resign if he’d been charged with income tax evasion, well, most people came to same conclusion you did right now: Of course.

Sadly, as a society, we barely see drunken driving as anything more than a traffic infraction, despite the facts that it kills about 150 Colorado residents each year, thousands nationwide. Research reveals that by the first time someone gets their first DUI, they’ve driven impaired or drunk about 80 times already. Some studies estimate that there are millions of inebriated drivers on American roads every night and day.

The problem is deadly and pervasive.

But unlike Pabon and others, I’ve long been against making drunken driving a felony and imposing mandatory jail time. It’s because it really doesn’t solve the problem, which is getting drunken drivers to never drive drunk again. All it does is make people lose their jobs and families. I think those convicted of drunken driving should be forced to wear wrist bands, identifying them as drunken drivers. Red bands come first. Yellow bands indicate caution. It should be illegal to sell or provide alcohol to anyone wearing a red band. Yellow bands mean you have blow into a breathalizer to purchase booze. For either bands, the convict must install a breathalizer in their car ignition and blow into it every they you drive for several years.

But Pabon’s issues are separate from that. His is one of trust, which was destroyed the minute he got behind the wheel, thinking he was going to get away with drinking that much beer and then driving home.

Just like all that beer, there’s no doubt that his humiliation and upcoming tribulations will affect his judgment and opinion on a wide range of issues he must deal with as a legislator. He should step down, work through his drunken-driving problem, and then decide whether he might want to run again, after coming clean. The crime is that serious, and the position of state legislator is that exalted.

I have no delusions that he’ll actually step down. I’m not sure anyone in his position actually ever has in Colorado. I’m not sure I would. In a better world, he would, but that’s the same world where people quit drinking before they get behind the wheel.

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