Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sunday Question for Everyone

I'd like to use this spot, on this terrible weekend, to celebrate politicians.  Have you ever had a positive personal encounter with a politician?  Here's a chance to tell your story.  In honor of Gabriel Zimmerman, the staff member who died yesterday, I'd also love to hear of any positive experiences with the people who work for politicians: congressional staff, but generally anyone who works for a pol.  Or, just write a quick sentence or two about a politician you really like. 

Democracy, at least our American version, doesn't work without the folks who dedicate part or all of their lives to running for office.  Hundreds of thousands of them: the United States has, by one estimate I've seen, half a million elected officials (which presumably means an almost equal number of people who run and lose every cycle).  They may be ambitious, or altruistic, or just possessed of an unusually high ability to appreciate the joys of public happiness, but whatever their motives, they make democracy happen.  So, please leave your stories here.


  1. When I was working as an organizer, a staffer from Congressman Keith Ellison's (D-MN) office came to give us a briefing on what Ellison was working on and give a general pep talk. The guy was incredibly knowledgeable and as nice as can be. It was great for us to know that our efforts did not go unnoticed by our representatives. Everyone was quite a bit more enthusiastic about canvassing that day.

  2. Thank you for remembering Gabriel Zimmerman. Given all the (appropriate) focus on Representative Giffords, it is easy to forget her staff member and his sacrifice. I understand and appreciate his relative anonymity in this tragedy. My first job out of college was running the "mobile office" of a New York member of Congress. I organized events like the one in Tucson yesterday dozens of times. The work seemed an unremarkable, but necessary part of the democratic process. Most of the constituents I met were very respectful and polite, looking for opportunities to meet their member of Congress, share an opinion or seek help with a problem. Others made me more uncomfortable, either because of the intensity of their political disagreements with my boss or because they were obviously mentally ill. More than once I worried about safety.

    My colleagues in the district office and I were a collegial bunch. We enjoyed solving constituents' problems and joked about the people who gave us the hardest time. We worked for hardly any money, but we believed that our boss made a difference in Congress and we wanted to be part of that.

    Gabriel Zimmerman's work was not as glamorous as that of the Congresswoman who employed him, but it is important to remember his public service. For some, public service is a heroic career, about believing in the power of leaders to make a positive difference in the world. I hope we can celebrate and respect that commitment more--it is honorable. The most memorable experiences I have from my days doing constituent service were as much about the values that motivated my co-workers as they were about the member of Congress for whom we worked.

  3. I work in the Wisconsin state legislature, and from time to time constituents call us for help with federal issues or programs, so we have to get in touch with the federal delegation. I've worked for reps across the state, so I've had occasion to work with nearly everyone Wisconsin sends to Congress, and Herb Kohl, hands down, has the best staff. They're the fastest at getting answers for you, and they go the extra mile. Once I got an email from one of them a few days later forwarding some info related to a question I'd asked, completely unprompted, even after my question had basically been answered. And even though he has six office in Wisconsin and one in Washington, no matter which one you talk to, you get the same high level of service, so it clearly comes from the top down.

    Honorable mention to Rep. Petri, whose Washington staff had a 45 min phone conversation with me helping me track down federal grant money for my boss's district, even though my boss was a Democrat outside of his district.

  4. Not a story of an encounter, per se... But Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), who I loathe and despise, has a wonderful staff. I sign petitions and send various e-mails to my Senators online--please support legalizing online gambling!--and Sessions always writes a real letter back. It is typed and the response is canned, and I know that, and I also know that in general Sessions will not be supporting my position. But it's still nice to get a letter in the mail, from the U.S. Senate, on Senate letterhead. Who gets letters anymore? Sen. Sessions is probably, like, the only person who sent me a letter this year.

    Again, I think Sessions is a miserable Senator who takes loathsome positions, but his office has got the constituent services thing down. And it is endearing, a bit. I don't have that "on the other hand..." feeling with Shelby (our other Senator).

  5. When I was in college, I was an intern at the Macon Telegraph and News, and was assigned to cover a Republican party picnic one Saturday. It was an open invitation for people to come out and see what the local Republicans (which was still in the midst of its ascendance in the South) stood for, and meet Congressman Pat Swindall. I had the chance to interview Rep. Swindall, who looked like the perfect young Republican - twinkling blue eyes, beautiful blonde wife, adorable baby daughter.

    An inexperienced 19-year-old reporter, I made a classic rookie mistake - my pen ran out of ink. I didn't have a backup. Instead of sneering at me, Swindall just smiled and offered me a pen out of his own pocket. I thought that was incredibly gracious of him.

    Seven years later, Swindall was convicted on nine counts of perjury and ended up serving a year in federal prison. I can't decide if that makes my story better or worse.

  6. A few years ago, I needed some information to help me make an important economic decision for my family. I wasn't really sure where to look, so I sent an email to our local state senator. He passed it on Hannah Pingree, Chellie Pingree's daughter, and speaker for the ME house at that time.

    She got back to me that day, personally, with the information I needed.

    I'm a big fan of Chellie -- how many other members of Congress can boast of authoring two knitting books? Bt I'm an even bigger of her daughter. Hannah Pingree is, I believe, the future of leadership in the Democratic Party.

  7. When I was a sophomore at Georgetown, there was an event on campus about the 25th anniversary of Gene McCarthy's 1968 campaign. I noticed that one of the people in the audience, drawing no attention to himself whatsoever, was Paul Wellstone. After the presentation I gulped and went over and introduced myself and then the most remarkable thing happened -- he initiated a conversation with me. We talked for a while about what classes I was taking, how he almost went to a school in my home state for college, why some schools have government departments and others have political science departments, and not once did I get the feeling that his attention was on anything but this nervous 19-year-old kid who was not from his state and was barely old enough to vote. It was a humbling and inspiring encounter, and I'm bittersweetly pleased that when I moved to Minnesota in 2002 I took the trouble to vote in that year's DFL primary, so that I can honestly say that I once voted for him.

    After I graduated, I worked in an office that had, before I started there, held an event at which former Rep. James Symington had spoken. I had to call him to get a copy of his remarks, and he was just the nicest guy you'd ever want to chat with.

    My local city council representative, Sandy Colvin Roy, has a great constituent service operation. Busted traffic lights, loud construction noises, you name it, she takes care of it.

  8. This is a story about a politician rather than a staff member, I'm afraid.

    Jerry Waldie was a long-time politican from the Delta north of San Francisco, serving in the state assembly and later in the U.S. House of Representatives. He and my father grew up together, played in the backfield together in high school, did pranks with each other. He was always a friend to every family from his past; my future wife called him "Dad" and they weren't related.

    In 1974, Waldie ran for Governor of California. He had little chance. His gimmick was to walk the entire state, connecting with voters and hopefully generating publicity. When he got to Antioch, where we all were from, the L.A. Times did a story on him, and took a picture of Waldie on a fishing pier with his old buddy, my father.

    Among the many good things my father was, he was for awhile an embezzler who spent some time in prison. It is hard to imagine any politician acknowledging any connection to anyone with a less-than-perfect background. But Jerry Waldie asked my dad to be in the picture, which did indeed run in the L.A. Times. It was a gesture I've never forgotten.

  9. Given that anonymous 3:47 mentioned a Georgetown in the early 90s story, I'll pass along an observation from when I was a student there in the same era. I've always been a little annoyed with the mocking of people who say they are leaving politics to "spend more time with their family". Because you know what - a lot of people in politics really are trying to be good parents as well as public servants, but sometimes it's extremely hard. So if people want to raise their kids instead of raise money and glad-hand, I think that's great. But I think it's also a nice and under-appreciated thing to see people who even as they have to deal with very hectic and draining lives in public service, really seem to be committed to their families as well. And from my observation the Georgetown parents who are now Vice President and the Speaker of the House appeared to be really good parents.

  10. First the name-dropping part: back when he was Sen. Magnuson's aide, Norm Dicks spent the better part of an afternoon with us low-level staff and some residents of a Seattle Housing Authority project trying to figure out how to get some more money for some of our programs; he came across as someone who really was engaged and trying to help. More generally, first half of my career in local govt. I spent a lot of time with folks from both parties in the WA State Legislature; top people, mostly.

  11. My first memory of retail politics is Chuck Schumer addressing a Hadassah meeting in my parents' living room. It can't have been more than 20 or 30 women -- I doubt if more could have fit -- and we don't even border his Congressional district. (This would have been in the late '80s, ten years before his Senate campaign.) My parents and the Hadassah ladies weren't excited at all. Or dreading or contemptuous, either; it was just no big. The fact that it wasn't a big deal to have a Member of Congress come to a very small non-fundraising event outside his district to address an ultra-specific constituency (middle-aged outerborough identified but non-Orthodox Jewish women) that he had in his pocket -- I don't know, I've always thought that was kind of fabulous.

    Say what you will about politicians, they work bloody hard, and on a lot of different kinds of things requiring utterly different skill sets, and the most visible portion of their job represents a very small amount of it, and they sacrifice a lot of money and stability for the privilege. As an academic(-in-training), I can appreciate that.

  12. I've spent a lot of time in Illinois politics, and have a couple stories at all levels, including some good ones with Obama. But I think the spirit of this thread points to a less lauded level of politician, so I'm going to an old State Senator of mine. I'm going to leave out the name because it's probably meaningless to most other commenters anyway (and god only knows what could be used to get him in trouble), but the bottom line is, he's a very ambitious guy, and a rising star in the party. I, on the other hand, am nothing; I don't donate a lot of money, I don't have good contacts, hell, I can't even vote for him anymore (I moved away). But whenever I get in contact with him to ask for something- a letter of recommendation, a reference, etc.- he always comes through, and follows up, too, to make sure it worked out. That's not typical constituent service- it's all borne out of the fact that he knows me- but it's well appreciated, especially since he has no reason to do it anymore.

    And hell, while I'm here, a quick story about the big guy- I worked for Obama in 2004, when he was running for Senate. I took a friend of mine to hear him speak at a tiny event in Carlinville, Illinois. My friend wanted to be a teacher, but was struggling in college; he couldn't get over the hump, and had a lot of people telling him he wasn't cut out for teaching. I introduced him to Obama, and Obama spent half an hour talking to him about teaching, about college, about education, etc. Basically, treating my friend like he was a professional in the field with a valid viewpoint and good standing. College remained a struggle for my friend, but it gave him a shot of confidence, a sense of "I AM good at this" that kept him going.

  13. First of all, as another Maine resident, I cannot say enough in praise of both Chellie and Hannah Pingree. I have been privileged to meet both of them, and they are both dedicated, principled and gracious women. Perhaps they are both just good at what they do, but both took the time to talk in a friendly and interested manner with me when there was no particular benefit to be had on their part beyond talking with an interested voter.

    Another politician I've met and really liked is poor, maligned David Paterson. His tenure as governor of New York was an unmitigated disaster, but he was still in the state Senate when I met him on a lobbying trip. He clearly cared a lot about our issue (women's reproductive health) and was friendly and accessible.

    Finally, the late Mel Carnahan was from my home town, and I went to his church (many religious iterations ago on my part). He was just as decent a human being as you'd ever want to know, and Missouri lost a great statesman when he died.

  14. Colby, your post this morning made my day. My wife and I chat occasionally about raising our small daughters, specifically meeting the dual objectives of, on the one hand, excellence through disciplined work (see Gladwell's Outliers or Colvin's Talent is Overrated) and on the other, interpersonal success from affirmation of others (Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People is still the gold standard).

    It does seem a bit easier to convince a 3-year-old to play nice with others than to get her hooked on phonics, but there's way more social/public pressure on getting your kid to read then on getting your kid to get along, even though getting along seems more important for eventual life success.

    That said, the Obama story leaves a priceless impression. A young black man with a Muslim name, from a broken family and a distant land (Hawaii...or Kenya, depending on your politics:), meeting a constituent in crisis about becoming a teacher and treats him as though he is the authority he doubts he could ever become...think the US senate is a moonshot for such a fellow? Screw that, next up the White House!

    Because the skills on display with your friend matter more than name or family or color or even intelligence - what a fantastic illustration. Thanks.


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