Meet your newest constituent!

Dear Tom,

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Bretta, and I’m filling in for Susan this week while she’s traveling.

Now, before I proceed, I have to make the disclosure that the title of this letter is slightly misleading. I do not currently live in NY 23. Actually, my current address is in Washington DC. We’re neighbors! I will, however, be a constituent of yours in the near future, when I make the move from my current job as a lab technician at the National Institutes of Health to a PhD program at Cornell. And guess what! Students in my program take an average of five and a half years to complete their degrees, which means that on at least two  occasions in the next decade I will find myself standing in a voting booth, deciding whether to check your name, or that of your Democratic opponent. From where I sit right now, it could go either way, but one thing is sure: I will be there, and I intend to be ready.

Since this is my first letter to you, I thought I would begin by telling you about myself. First, some demographic data: I’m a twenty-seven year-old unmarried white woman. I hold three college degrees. My first is an Associate’s degree from a community college in the SUNY system. My second is a Bachelor’s in Biology from the same small Christian liberal arts college where Susan teaches. My third degree is a Master’s in Public Health from Boston University, which I completed in 2012. I have spent the five years since in a variety of short term jobs in fields ranging from food service to international non-profit work to higher education.

Like Susan, I am a Christian – more specifically a non-denominational Protestant. I was raised as a PK (Preacher’s Kid) and I still cleave to my spiritual roots. I go to church regularly, (perhaps you know it? The District Church in Columbia Heights?) and attend a weekly small group. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, and frequent muttered prayers, I strive to live my life in accordance with the example of Jesus Christ, and I trust him for my salvation.

I am also a registered Democrat. This is a source of significant bemusement and (sometimes) dismay to my parents. They have to crane pretty far over their left shoulder to see me, and what they see often makes them shake their heads. Many in my extended family have never even considered voting for a Democrat. I, on the other hand, have yet to cast a vote for a Republican. Not that I’ve voted for many Democrats either. Like many people my age, my voting history is quite spare. A brief history of my political activity to date:

  • The presidential election of 2008: I filled out an absentee ballot for McCain, stared at it gloomily for several minutes, then tore it up and went back to studying for exams.
  • The presidential election of 2012: I was living in Haiti, and hadn’t thought to apply for an absentee ballot. I felt vaguely guilty about this, but when the results were in I went to bed thinking “all’s well that ends well.”
  • The Democratic primary of 2016: I donated $50 to Bernie Sanders, and cheerfully cast my vote for him.
  • The presidential election of 2016: I voted for Hilary Clinton, and for all the Democratic candidates riding her coattails.

You may have noticed that 2016 marked a shift in my level of political engagement. And I’m sure you haven’t had any difficulty in guessing why.  There is a lot that I could say about our current president, but I promised Susan I would be on my best behavior, so I will refrain. Suffice it to say, the outcome of the Republican primary, the general election, and the first 60+ days have successively shaken my faith in our electoral system, and have led me to consider my responsibilities as a member of the electorate. How should I respond to the election of a man whom I consider dangerously unfit for the office of President? Should I rail against the electoral college and punctuate my social media posts with #notmypresident? Should I vow to #resist, and call for the head of any Democrat who dares to compromise with the Trump administration? Should I threaten to move to Canada? Or should I declare that democracy is a sham, that politics are a shell game, and that I am renouncing both so I can spend my time more productively watching cat videos?

Hopefully the fact that I am writing this letter makes it clear that I have not opted for any of these responses. In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe the system is rigged. I don’t believe that politicians are soulless suits. And I don’t look across the aisle with hatred. I believe that if you want to solve any problem, you must begin by addressing the log in your own eye, and mine is not hard to find:

I have been inexcusably lazy.

For most of the past ten years I have succumbed to apathy: failing to vote in midterm elections. Failing to communicate with my elected representatives. Failing to learn vital facts about important political issues. In more recent years, I have found new ways of being lazy: Consuming an unbalanced media diet. Voting for Democrats without knowing a thing about them beyond the fact that they are Democrats. Reflexively attributing sinister motives to those with whom I disagree.

Well Tom, if I am really going to own my role in creating the problem it behoves me to make some constructive changes to my approach. So here they are:

  1. For the next five years, I will make it my business to exercise my right to vote at every opportunity I am given (primary and general, national, state, and local).
  1. I will never again cast my ballot for a candidate solely on the basis of his/her party affiliation.
  1. I will adopt a right-leaning media outlet (I’m thinking The Economist) to supplement my current media diet.

As you can see, I have my work cut out for me, and I’ve already begun my research – starting with you. I’ve taken out a subscription to the Ithaca Journal, and I’ve started to read up on your voting record and watch clips of your latest townhall meetings on YouTube. I’ve even dug up a few subcommittee hearings on the House Ways and Means YouTube channel (which I found much more interesting than their view counts suggested they would be). So, what have I learned about you so far?

Out of all the data I have sifted through so far, the most interesting to me was the video of a Town Hall meeting in Ithaca, my soon-to-be new home, earlier this month. I have to hand it to you, that was gutsy. You had to know what was waiting for you there. Ithaca is probably the single most staunchly liberal municipality in Tompkins county – the only county you lost last year. I watched the video with interest (notwithstanding all the yelling and stamping, the poor sound quality, and the Planned Parenthood signs blocking the camera).

Overall, I thought you were remarkably patient, respectful, and pleasant in a palpably tense situation. I liked that. I also appreciated your conversation with Assemblywoman Lifton. It was fascinating to me to see the gears of state government meet the gears of national government. Seeing that interaction helped to humanize something that has always been abstract to me.

Most of the meeting was spent on a Q and A focused on your party’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Minus the bullhorn, the scene was very similar to what Susan described at the town hall meeting she attended. Most of the people in that room like the ACA, and they took the opportunity to vent some frustration at your expressed support for repealing it. You countered their concerns about lost health coverage by saying that you have heard anecdotes from other constituents who have suffered under the ACA.

That did not go over well.

I have to say, Tom, it’s going to take a little more than that to justify your position in my eyes. For every anecdote you can report of struggling business owners, and people not getting to see the doctor they wanted, I can counter with two more about the dire straits faced by the uninsured. It leaves me wondering: how did you reach your decision to support Repeal and Replace?

-Were you moved by the stories of constituents of yours who were negatively impacted by the ACA?

-Did you review scientifically collected data that convinced you that the ACA had a net negative impact on your constituents? On the country? If so, what was it?

-Do you hold Conservative doctrines and values of self-sufficiency above your constituents’ expressed desires and practical needs?

-Were you pressured by your party to toe the line?

-Were you, as suggested by one constituent at the meeting, motivated by a vindictive desire to obliterate the legacy of a Democratic president?

Here is what I hope: I hope that I can trust you to represent the best interests of your whole district. I hope you are a compassionate person who takes consideration of the most vulnerable people in it. I hope that you are a reasonable person who is capable of being swayed by solid arguments and data. I hope that you are a wise person who is able to understand the complexity of the problems you are tasked with solving. I hope you are an open-minded person who is willing to see the perspective of the opposition and, on occasion, to compromise with them. In short, I hope you are the kind of person I could vote for. I don’t know yet if you are, but fortunately your next election is a long way off, and I will have lots of time to do my homework.

I hope you come to Ithaca again this year. If you do, I will be there.

Your almost constituent,

Bretta

First steps

Dear Tom,

I sent you a quick note earlier in the week to thank you for supporting the Republican Climate Resolution, but it’s the weekend and it’s time for a longer letter.

I’m very pleased that you cosponsored that resolution, which speaks clearly about the “conservative principle to protect, conserve, and be good stewards of our environment, responsibly plan for all market factors, and base our policy decisions in science and quantifiable facts on the ground.”

This is a statement that should create common ground between you and many of your constituents in the 23rd district. And this is just the kind of move toward the center of the political spectrum that I, as a moderate voter, had been hoping to see from you. Well done, Tom!

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

But there are some next steps I think you should take that will be harder. Supporting a “resolution” on an issue does not commit you to support or withdraw your support from any specific legislation. You’ve added your name to a list with 16 others who are also on your political team. Are you ready to go further?

What about joining the “Climate Solutions Caucus”? This is a bipartisan group founded last year by legislators from Florida: one Republican (Carlos Curbelo) and one Democrat (Ted Deutch). The plan is for the membership of this caucus to remain evenly distributed between the two parties. No Democrat will join unless a Republican also does and vice-versa. I suspect that there are some Democrats lined up to join this group but they can’t join until there are Republican members to match them.  What if you and the seven other representatives who signed this week’s Republican Climate Resolution (and who haven’t done so already) also joined this caucus?

You’d be joining representatives John Faso and John Katko, also from New York, and so would have some regional buddies on this issue. There’s also Barbara Comstock from Virginia, Frank LoBiondo from New Jersey, Pat Meehan from Pennsylvania, David Reichert from Washington State, and Mark Sanford from South Carolina. That’s a big pack of Republicans who’ve come out in support of doing something about Climate Change. If all of you joined the Climate Solutions Caucus together, that would both provide safety in numbers and really make a statement!

That might be a little harder, but I think it’s a feasible next step for you and one that would make this constituent really happy.

The steps after that will be much, much harder. That’s when you actually vote for legislation that does what is described in your resolution:

“create and support economically viable and broadly supported private and public solutions to study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates.”

That’s going to be tough.

But you’ve taken the first step this week. Keep going.

Your personal cheerleader (on bi-partisan climate legislation),

Susan

Stuck

Dear Tom,

Did you miss me?

I took last week off from writing so that I could enjoy a weekend getaway with my husband to New York City. We had a grand time eating out at nice restaurants, going to see a show, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and walking through Central Park. But that was vacation. Now I’m back to work.

And I’m feeling stuck. When I started writing to you in November I was feeling dispirited but also energized. Our country had just elected a president whom I do not admire and my congressional district had just re-elected a representative that, more often than not, supports policies with which I disagree. But I was determined that if I took the time to be politically engaged, wrote to you regularly, showed up at your town hall meetings, tried to work together with people with whom I disagreed, that things would be okay.

Four months later, I don’t think it’s working out very well.

I’ve been faithfully writing to you and following your website, facebook page, and any time you’re interviewed. You’ve been conducting Town Hall meetings and heroically listening to people tell you how much they dislike what you’re doing.

But it feels like each of our efforts are futile. Each week, your party proposes some new initiative following up on your promises to undo the policies of the previous presidential administration. They valued flexibility on immigration; you’re building a wall. They valued an expanded role for the government in ensuring more health-care coverage; you’re proposing a more market-based approach that has fewer protections for the poor and elderly. They valued environmental initiatives to curb climate change and protect air and water; you’re rescinding regulations on oil, gas, and mining. They valued using the federal court system to ensure civil rights; you’re supporting judges who want to allow different states to come to different conclusions about issues like abortion and gay marriage.

And everything that your party tries to do is met with howls of protest. Some of my friends take the position that everything your party is trying to do must be terribly wrong just because your party is trying to do it.

We all belong to teams. And we’re treating politics like a competitive sport. If your team wins then my team loses. That’s how sports work.

Here’s an example from this week. Even though the Republican alternative to the ACA has been widely criticized (the AARP, for example, came out against it), you cheerily went to the White House to be praised by the president for supporting it. And the people in your district who have been angrily showing up to all your town hall meetings, wailed with fury. They feel hopeless. You’ve been so patiently attending all these meetings. Did it make no difference?

Your team supports undoing the basic structures of the ACA even if older people lose coverage.  The other team will not support anything you propose, I suspect, even it’s more sensible than what you put forward this week. We are at an impasse.

Doesn’t it feel sometimes like the two political parties are in a failed marriage? I wish, sometimes, that I could put the party leadership in a room with a counselor or mediator. You know that exercise where you have to describe the other person’s perspective in a way that they could endorse? Do you think that would be helpful?

I’m not sure what to tell you, Tom. I’m feeling frustrated. Neither party is behaving well. I need to get around to writing or calling to my Democratic senators to tell them that I’m tired of their strategy of opposing everything, just for the sake of being oppositional.

But I’m stubborn. So I’m going to keep writing to you and telling you how I feel. I may never get a personal acknowledgement that you have any idea I’m out here, but it makes me feel like at least I’m doing something.

Not giving up,

Susan