The buzz phrase “bad optics” was resurrected this week, mainly in tongue-in-cheek fashion by pundits, politicians and writers as a dig at milquetoast TV journalist Chuck Todd, who used the tired phrase in earnest to describe the Robert Mueller hearings in the U.S. House.
It’s a jargony way of saying something doesn’t look good for a person or group and could harm their reputation, whether or not they’ve necessarily done anything wrong or illegal.
It can certainly be argued that West Virginia Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, taking a new job this week as public affairs manager for a company building a controversial manufacturing plant in his county is “bad optics.”
Rockwool is building a stone wool insulation plant in the Eastern Panhandle that has drawn criticism from local residents regarding the way in which state and local authorities allowed the project to happen and the serious uptick in air pollution that will occur once production starts, among other concerns.
But the West Virginia Legislature is a part-time gig. Delegates and senators generally have jobs and careers outside the 60 days (and many more lately, because of multiple special sessions) they spend at the Capitol.
So, it might not look great that Espinosa, while remaining a legislator, is taking a job that will literally have him conveying the public messages this corporate entity will want to push out, which will, at some point, clash with the interests of some in the local community, it’s just “bad optics,” right?
Wrong. And here’s why: While legislators often try to disqualify themselves from voting on bills that would benefit their employer or the industry they represent, (seeking “good optics”) they’re rarely allowed to actually do so.
West Virginia law, specifically an article referred to as Rule 49, pretty much requires that they vote. In fact, through 2018, delegates had made 245 requests over five years for recusal from a vote. The House Speaker approved 14 of them. So, 94 percent of the time, delegates were told they had to vote on an issue that, to those delegates, was a potential conflict of interest. After being told they had to vote, do you think those delegates would vote against legislation directly benefiting their employer but possibly hurting others?
Espinosa says he doesn’t think Rockwool will seek any legislation in the House. But there could be myriad bills that impact the company one way or another, whether regarding pollution, manufacturing regulations, corporate taxes, worker safety, etc.
Yes, a company that has gotten off to a controversial start hiring a legislator to be their public face looks like an attempt to gain influence. The “bad optics” alone only add to mistrust. But constituents should know that it’s more than that, because, even if he has every intention in the world of separating his job from his political activity, if the two should meet, Delegate Espinosa will, in all likelihood, cast a vote.