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Lawmakers on Active Duty Stay in Touch

Stacey Kennedy-Boccieri, a pregnant mother of two and wife of a state lawmaker, inherited much of her husband's job while he was overseas with the military: handling constituent calls, running his home legislative office and more.

"I spoke for him at a dinner, which I hate to do," said Kennedy-Boccieri, 31. She later warned her husband, state Rep. John Boccieri, "You owe me big time."

Boccieri is among a small group of state lawmakers from across the nation who have juggled life in uniform with politics. Unlike most civilians-turned-soldiers, lawmakers don't completely leave their jobs behind, mindful of their status as elected officeholders.

They stay in touch with constituents and issues — such as the state budget debate in Ohio — with the help of the Internet, cell phones, relatives, staff and friends.

"Fifteen years ago, 20 years ago it would have been very difficult to be in the Legislature and be a reservist and to be called overseas," Boccieri said in an interview before giving a speech on the environment at Youngstown State University.

The Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures said 13 state lawmakers were called to active duty in 2003, the first year of the Iraq war and the only head count by the organization.

House and Senate staffs said no member of Congress has been called to duty in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. Rep. Steve Buyer, D-Ind., an attorney in the Army Reserve, was ready to go, but the Pentagon felt his high profile would endanger others.

Boccieri, 35, a fresh-faced Democrat from New Middletown in northeast Ohio, returned home in April from a four-month rotation as an Air Force Reserve major. He piloted a cargo plane delivering equipment and supplies — and occasionally VIPs like U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain — to the war zone.

Boccieri has made four transitions from lawmaker to active-duty pilot since February 2004.

The town of 3,556 residents takes his military absences in stride, said Laura Ross, who runs a service station with her husband in New Middletown. "This community has always been pro-military," said Ross, a Navy veteran.

There can be limits to keeping in touch long distance, however.

State Sen. Steve Stivers, a Columbus Republican and lieutenant colonel on one year's active duty with the Ohio Army National Guard, listened to the governor's State of the State address overseas until an Internet connection failed. For security reasons, he identified his duty location only as southwest Asia, which includes the Iraq war theater.

"My mother sometimes covers meetings, and I have lots of friends and supporters who cover events for me," Stivers said in an exchange of e-mails with The Associated Press over several months.

When at base camp he tries to spend an hour or two every night keeping up with constituents and the Statehouse, usually through e-mail.

Stivers was able to arrange a new hearing for a man with a complaint before the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and help a businesswoman find an Internet site that helps calculate sales taxes for mail orders.

Unlike mayors — who can be pestered over issues like potholes — and congressmen asked to find lost Social Security checks, state lawmakers often are contacted by local officials or lobbying groups.

Mayor Cheryl Grossman of Grove City, south of Columbus, has consulted with Stivers on legislative issues by e-mail.

"Even with his remote location, he is involved and certainly informed on issues before us," Grossman said.

Like most states, Ohio doesn't allow lawmakers absent due to military service to cast votes. Boccieri has proposed ending that prohibition, as long as the absent lawmaker doesn't cast the deciding vote.

Still, some lawmakers decide not to juggle two positions.

In Kansas, GOP state Rep. Lee Tafanelli, an Army National Guard lieutenant colonel, decided to quit the Legislature when he was activated last year. He was unopposed for re-election in 2004 and hopes to reclaim his seat when he returns.

Tafanelli said he believed his focus should be on the soldiers and military mission. And, he said, he didn't want his constituents to go without representation during his yearlong absence.

"With the important issues on the table, I just felt that the people in the district needed to have their voices and their concerns heard," he said in a telephone interview from Iraq. "And they really needed someone who could be there to represent them, not someone halfway around the world."