In The Public’s Service
Serving as a Congressional Aide to then Congressman Tom Downey (Democrat, 2nd District, NY) in 1983 is something I look back on with a great deal of pride. I had recently graduated from Columbia University with a master’s degree in Public Administration and was filled with youthful enthusiasm to make my mark. I was in my (very) early 20s then, so wet behind the ears I’m surprised they didn’t make me wear towels on my shoulders to make sure I didn’t leave puddles behind me.
Walking down those halls, I was humbled thinking of all the men and women who had walked those halls before me. Passing each Member’s office, I reflected on how much it had taken for each of those Congressional Representatives to get to there, to earn the title of Congressman. Countless speeches and meetings, rubber chicken dinners, country fairs, breakfasts with local various boards and chambers and local union chapters. Piled on top was the endless fundraising, each donor wanting personal attention for their special favor in exchange for a check. Some things don’t change.
Cold Pizza and Potato Chips
I knew it well. I had worked on the Congressman’s campaign prior to joining his staff. Sometimes there was witty banter like what happens on West Wing, but more usually it was just very long hours, lists of phone calls to voters to get out the vote, and dinner often just cold pizza and potato chips. I’d heard the Congressman’s stump speech so often I could almost repeat it word for word.
Tom Downey was initially elected to the Ninety-Fourth Congress in 1974 as one of the youngest Congressman ever to serve (he was 25). When I joined is campaign, he seeking reelection for the Ninety-Eighth Congress, ultimately successfully. It was the largest plurality he had ever experienced, over 60% — remarkable given his district sat in the middle of generally Republican and conservative Suffolk County on Long Island, New York.
As a Congressman, he was smart and politically shrewd, gaining the respect of many of his peers on both sides of the aisle because of his tireless work ethic. One Senator Al Gore particularly sought out his counsel.
All Politics is Local
That tireless work ethic extended to his staff. There was always something to attend to. Sometimes it was national, like House Ways & Means Committee or Department of Defense. For us staffers, it was mostly handling local matters, such as someone who didn’t get their Social Security Check or some other problem where the Congressman’s intervention in the federal bureaucracy could cut through red tape. If you think the national issues took precedent, you’d be wrong. As former House Speaker Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local”. Taking care of constituent needs was top priority. Forget about who you serve and you can soon forget about being called Congressman.
Founding Fathers’ Wisdom
It could be heady stuff. Taking the U.S. Capital subway system from the Rayburn House Office Building to the Capitol Building to run an errand, you’d find yourself sitting next to a Senator or Congressman you had just seen on television earlier speaking on some key issue of the day.
Most of my time was spent in the Rayburn House Office Building where the Congressmen had their offices. Walking around there, you couldn’t help be struck by how truly representative of America the House of Representatives was. Walk by the office of a Congressman from Texas and you’d see a huge pair of steer horns mounted in his front lobby area. A Congressman from Manhattan’s west side had posters of just about every Broadway show and Lincoln Center opera ever put on. A Congressman from Southern California had photos of him surfing at Oceanside or Huntington Beach.
You get the idea.
Each office was a confirmation of the Founding Fathers’ wisdom when they conceived of this body. In every one of those 435 offices, issues important to each Congressional district across the nation came together in this one place to be heard and addressed. Just as it had been designed and foreseen in 1776.
A Parking Ticket for a Purple Heart
Because there are so many views and perspectives, each competing for attention, getting legislation passed isn’t easy. Just because you feel passionately about your issue doesn’t mean everyone shares your view, no matter how urgent or altruistic you think the goal. It has to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
I learned this firsthand when a letter from a constituent landed on my desk. It was from a Veteran, a World War II veteran. He had lost a leg in battle and earned the Purple Heart. However, when traveling in Florida on vacation, he got a ticket for parking in a handicapped spot because he did not have Florida handicapped license plates. He had New York handicapped plates.
I may have been a political neophyte, but even I could see that a handicapped WWII veteran with a Purple Heart made for a great opportunity to do something positive. Why shouldn’t each state acknowledge and welcome a handicapped person from another state? This seemed like a slam-dunk.
It wasn’t. Objections came from a Florida physicians organization who wanted to assure Florida doctors had the authority to determine who and who wasn’t handicapped in their state. A states-rights group objected vociferously on the grounds that driving was a privilege set under state purview, not the Federal government’s. A handicapped lobbyist came to the Congressman’s office to express his thanks, but thought the legislation hadn’t gone far enough, presenting a stack of of other legislation they sought approval of.
Undaunted, I prepared a comment for the Congressional Record explaining why this legislation was so important, worked with the Congressional Staff who drafted proposed legislation, got the Congressman’s blessing, and walked up the steps of the Capitol Building to present the “Reciprocal Immunity Act” to the officer of the House Clerk’s Office at the door of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Door to the House
Let me emphasize that. The DOOR of the U.S. House of Representatives. The door because no one was allowed through that door and onto the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives unless you were a Congressman or had special permissioning. You had to earn your way to be on that floor, to be with other legislators, to stand in the well of the House Chamber to speak, and in that ultimate act of being an elected representative of the 500,000 or so people in your district, to cast your vote in favor of (or opposed to) legislation under consideration to become the law of the land. That vote indeed the very core of democracy and the democratic process.
Rights versus Righteousness
So when I see the photographs of these domestic terrorists, dressed in quasi-military black fatigues, some armed, forcibly making their way into the Capitol Building, breaking onto the House floor, and one having the gall to sit with self-satisfied righteous smugness in the Speaker’s Chair, I am first horrified and then left furious beyond words.
My strong emotions well up because this goes far beyond the fact that none of these intruders have any right to be on that floor. That is a right earned, earned by those who worked to gain a plurality of men and women expressing with their vote their choice of who would best reflect their views in the Congress and on that floor.
It even goes beyond that the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, where different views come for open debate and discussion — the cornerstone of democratic principles — was literally trampled by the appalling actions of this mob.
Elections, not Insurrections
It is that their actions are the very opposite of why our nation was founded and counter to anything that is democratic. America has elections, not armed insurrections. That is why it will continue to be, even after these shocking and disgraceful events, to be a beacon of hope and freedom for those both at home and around the world who seek better opportunity and release from oppression.
My legislation did not go much further than being referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. It wasn’t until a few years later that similar legislation was passed as part of a larger transportation bill. Of course it would have been great if my legislation had been passed right off the bat, but I feel just as honored to know that, from what I started, others took up the cause. Now handicapped drivers from any state can park in any handicapped spot in any other state without fear of getting a ticket. It may not seem like much, but it does help many of my fellow Americans who have handicaps, wherever they live.
Final Thoughts: Best for America
These many years later, sometimes I am asked what party I support or what my political leanings are now. I reply the same way every time. I am not a Democrat. I am not a Republican. I am neither conservative nor liberal. I am an American. I want what is best for my fellow Americans, be they my next door neighbor, a shopkeeper in my town, a farmer in the Midwest, a retiree in Florida, a tech worker in Seattle, a teacher in northern Maine, an oil patch worker in Texas, or a rancher in Montana. Or any of the other 331,000,000 people who are fortunate enough to call America their home.
Each of my fellow Americans are free to participate the democratic process to make themselves heard as to what they think is best.
That is what democracy is.
And sometimes, something a simple as a letter can open a door and create a law.