When The Candidate Goes to War

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When politicians usually travel to Iraq, they go on "fact-finding missions" and are photographed shaking hands with U.S. troops. Arizona Rep. Jonathan Paton is going to fight. The 35-year-old is a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves and a freshman Republican state representative for District 30, which extends from parts of Tucson to the Arizona-Mexico border. Paton, who is not married but has a girlfriend, will leave for Iraq at the beginning of September and will return in mid- to late-January. While he is in the war zone, he will miss the primary election on Sept. 12, the general election on Nov. 7 and — if he wins — the first few weeks of the legislative session.

Paton volunteered for the deployment knowing he'd miss much of the campaign and both elections. "This is something I can actually do to defend what I believe in," Paton says. "There's the whole argument about weapons of mass destruction, but I really just felt that what Saddam Hussein was doing was wrong, and we needed to finish the job that we had started years before." He adds that the first few weeks of session are usually devoted to issues like naming the state butterfly and not hammering out the state budget. The move also leaves his opponents in a sticky position: do they attack Paton in his absence? Or even suggest that his volunteering is an election gambit?

In Iraq, Paton, as an Army intelligence officer, will decide which roads are safe for troops to take and which could be a trap. The possibility that an improvised explosive device, a suicide bomber or an AK-47-wielding insurgent could kill him doesn't deter him. "There is fear. I wouldn't be human if I didn't think about that," he says. "Everyone thinks I'm just making this up, but my biggest fear and what keeps me up late at night is thinking that I screwed up and cost someone else their life."

Ironically, it was politics — make that a political setback — that led him to the U.S. Army. When he was 27, he ran for state representative and lost. Following what he calls a crushing defeat, he worked as a waiter. One night at the restaurant he encountered an Arizona politician, whom he refuses to name. "He came up behind me and kind of slapped my back and said, 'Good job, Jonathan,' and he handed me two bucks," Paton says. "I just felt completely humiliated. I went home back to my apartment, and I was just sitting there in my boxer shorts watching TV late at night and an Army ad came on. I thought, 'You know, I really need a change, something that will challenge me.'"

After Paton returned from training in 1999, he again ran for office a year later and again he lost. Finally, in 2004, he was elected. After a year in office, he was called up for active duty for six months of additional training between legislative sessions. "I went from 'Representative Paton' this, 'Representative Paton' that, to 'Hey you, you need to clean out the latrine.' It was the best thing that could have happened to me."

There's no telling whether his tour of duty in Iraq will help or hurt his chances back home in District 30. He says he doesn't know if his opponents in the primary will take his absence as an opportunity to attack him without consequence, or avoid the topic of him in Iraq entirely knowing it could boost his popularity in a district where 50% of the voters are Republican. Rep. Marian McClure, who occupies the other seat in District 30 and is one of four Republicans vying for the two seats, says that there's no chance this is simply an election ploy. "He is a young man doing his duty to his country, and anyone that knows Mr. Paton knows that there is no other motive," she says. "I believe the voters will respond very positively to Mr. Paton's decision. I do not believe there is any question, at least in my mind, that Jonathan will be reelected. Jonathan is always going to win."

If he doesn't, that'll be okay, too, Payton says. "Ultimately, I decided that if I lose because I'm doing something that I believe in, then so be it. There are worse things in life than that."