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For a political rookie, a devolution to abhor and avoid

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A young Afghan war veteran, whose family has lived in my district for eight generations, wishes to be my next representative in Congress. He would succeed the imploded former Rep. Eric Massa, whom I supported, and who taught me the bittersweet consequences of commingling voter naїvete with false hope, as did candidate-turned-President Obama.

This young Democratic candidate has sent me three letters (I’m sure thousands of other district voters received them, too), saying, in effect, this: “I need your help.”

All across America, as savvy political incumbents and their often hapless, outspent challengers belly up to the fundraising trough, they reach out to folks like you and me – the so-called little guys — asking for $10, $25, $50, whatever we can spare to set this country back on the right path. They’re all saying, with false modesty: “I need your help.” (They want our little donations for less than $200, the amount at which candidates must report them to the Federal Election Commission, so they can say they’re supported by real people, real voters, not PACs and pass-downs from the national parties.)

This young man from my district fought in a war with real bullets, bombs, and IEDs. He faced menacing threats each day in theater. Now that he’s home, he’s filed for entry into another war. For that, I commend him – and feel sorry for him. I don’t know if, despite a pair of master’s degrees, he’s sufficiently trained for this kind of warfare.

By now, he’s realized he’s dependent on staff – to organize his schedule, to be driven to picnics, pubs, and pig roasts while he reads briefing papers prepared by even more staff, to deal with requests from the press for interviews (favorable, even fawning coverage, he hopes), and to build and maintain his website and social media operations. By now, he realizes he needs more money. Lots of money.

In the 2008 election cycle, Massa raised $2.1 million to defeat incumbent Randy Kuhl, who raised about $1.5 million. So far, the young Afghan vet has raised $136,000 or so, compared with the $636,000 raised by the likely Republican candidate. He knows he needs money. Much more money.

And by now, he realizes that acquiring name recognition throughout the district, which he does not enjoy, means he really needs to raise that $2 million or more Massa grabbed for the same reason. Maybe this political novice has recognized, or been bluntly told by “campaign advisers,” that the $25 or $50 I might send him, multiplied by the others to whom he sent his plea, is wholly insufficient for that task. The 660,000 folks in this district in which the median household income is about $42,000 cannot provide him with the several millions of dollars he’ll need to make a credible run in November against a better-funded Republican.

Smart Democratic operatives folks with serious money – in this district, mostly leaders of corporations and big institutions with a hint of academia and local pols who can direct the movement of money thrown in – know this. They whisper to him: “Hey, I know people willing to drop serious dollars on you. You want to be deniable about PAC or corporate money? Fine. I’ll get them to write you personal checks. … You’re a bright, earnest, honest, intelligent man. You’d be good for this district.”

Left unspoken is this: “You’d better be good for the district in return. And you’d damn well better be good for me.” And quid pro quo, disguised by gladhanding at house parties hosted by “real” voters, enters the war veteran’s lexicon. Those who want him in office for their own political or business ends hand him checks, even cash, and explain what the district really needs, and his idealistic campaign platform shifts ever so slightly, the first of many, subtle course corrections necessitated by the need for money. And so he learns the worth — and price — of bundlers.

He’s smart. He learns quickly. Soon, his campaign website’s donation page sets up a tiered system of rewards. Donate $100 and get an invite to a campaign picnic with the candidate. Donate $500? Sit at the head table at the picnic but not next to the candidate. Donate $1,000? Sit next to the candidate, have him pour you a beer, and you get to walk with him to his car (or the one provided by a supportive Democratic car dealer) when he departs. Donate the legal max – $2,400 – and the candidate will meet with you privately and take his own notes on what you think your business the district’s business community really needs.

Then the call comes – the one from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spent $14,000 on Massa in 2008. Democrats, through Act Blue and other candidates’ committees and leadership PACs, dropped nearly a million bucks on getting Kuhl out of the House. The Dems want to keep this seat.

A mellifluous voice on the phone says, “Son, we like your style and your new, fresh ideas and approaches to solving the nation’s problems. We think you’ve got what it takes to be a terrific addition to the House. We think you could really contribute to the work of the House – you know, the business of the American people. We’ll send you $25,000 to help your campaign. We can get others to fund you too, Act Blue, unions, all of them. … There’s just a few small changes we’d recommend to your campaign platform, nothing big. Oh, we’ll send one of our consultants down to give you a hand with your ads. They’re a little too soft on your opponent. You gotta be tough, son.”

Money flows in. Consultants arrive. The Afghan vet’s website is spic and span’d. His image is spruced up with new clothes; media training follows. A targeted voter database spits out robocalls. Radio spots run; TV ads attack. Twitter and Facebook go ga-ga.

And lo and behold, come November 2, the young Afghan vet, born and bred in the land of the Marcellus shale (and its lawsuits over environmentally damaging hydrofracking for natural gas), is elected to the House of Representatives, for which he’ll earn $174,000 a year. Hearty congratulations flow in from friends, family, the folks who sent him checks for $25 and $50 … and top brass from advocacy lobbying organizations, many he’s never heard of: PhRMA, API, the NRA, the NEA, the Edison Electric institute, America’s Power, Americans for Financial Reform, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, The Business Roundtable, the Sierra Club, the Renewable Fuels Association, the National Association of Realtors, Greenpeace USA, the American Wind Energy Association, the American Dairy Association, the National Corn Growers Association … even the American League of Lobbyists.

All the calls follow the same script: “Looking forward to seeing you in D.C., son. You need anything, just call. Really. Anything at all.”

Two weeks later, the young Afghan veteran, now a duly elected member of the United States House of Representatives, ships out to Washington, D.C., with all the other freshman reps for indoctrination orientation to the House. He’s assigned an office in the Cannon House Office Building. He learns he has an office budget of $1.3 million to $4.5 million and is duly “advised” on hiring staff. Senior, presumably wiser, House members suggest this guy and that to help him: “Son, you need someone as your chief of staff who knows the ropes, someone who’s been around the Hill a lot, who knows people, especially folks over on K Street … those folks over there can be real useful to you.”

That chief of staff, the new member of Congress learns, can be paid almost as much as him, about $168,000. And the new House member will need someone who can deceive handle the press, and these days, that means someone who can also deal with rabid, vapid bloggers and Twitterstorms and Facebook fans. Add a scheduler, hands-on constituent handlers, and so on. Oh, he’ll need staff in his district offices, too. Hmmm. Experienced Hill people suggest he thank reward some campaign volunteers with those jobs back home.

He’s assigned to House committees and subcommittees. Some he likes, others, not so much. It’s how we work, son. The people’s business is done quietly, real quietly, in committees. We sort the wheat from the chaff. Or at least committee staff does …

He’s taken to the House Recording Studio, recently moved to the 580,000-square-foot, $600 million, three-years-late Capitol Visitor Center, and learns to use its digital facilities. For, y’know, keeping in touch with constituents. For emailing to the press video clips of him commenting on the important issues of the day as he stands beside the American flag in front of fake bookcases, clips local TV stations can splice into newscasts back in the district or dump on their news-lean, aggregation-heavy websites.

Each night, he attends receptions and more receptions, hosted by lobbyists pretending not to be lobbyists. He’s offered advice, counsel, and gen-yew-ine friendship by men and women wearing clothes that cost more than the Kevlar KM2 fiber body armor that protected him in Afghanistan. His Blackberry fills up with contacts as fast as campaign contributions churn toward his bank. He learns that the banking industry alone has five lobbyists for every member of Congress.

He meets the president of the United States, the man he once saluted as his commander-in-chief, and the man he is now required to face fearlessly as a constitutional check and balance.

He’s sworn in by the Speaker of the House, who, a few weeks later, will chew him out for having lunch in the Ernest Petinaud Members’ Dining Room with a freshman GOP representative he met at orientation. He learns quickly the mantra: No consorting with the enemy. No matter, because he learns, too, that he does not have time to make friends. On weekends, and they begin Thursday night, he flies back to the district, attends fundraisers and ribbon-cuttings and photo ops, and flies back to D.C. late Monday, when he’ll deposit the donors’ checks he collected.

He’ll live in an overpriced D.C. apartment or townhouse, perhaps sharing costs with a few other members (as long as they’re Democrats). During his weekday evenings, and even in his office between his 15-minute scheduled appointments, he’ll make phone calls to potential donors, shoring up his campaign war chest. And this is war, the atmospherics of Congress teach him.

People swarm to his office. Some are constituents, awestruck or mystified by D.C., wanting only an autograph or a flag flown over the Capitol. Others are staffers of other members or committees, coordinating stuff needing coordinating, details below his need to know. Most are lobbyists willing to impart information you need, son. His chief of staff, that experienced Hill staffer, deflects them from him, but sits with some and writes the language of bills our Afghan veteran would like to is told he ought to sponsor. He learns deal-making: a vote for another member’s bill in exchange for a vote on his bill. He learns to swallow the compromise. After a while, the deals go down more easily.

When the House is in session, he sits on one side of the aisle, the enemy sits on the other. He watches as the speaker, the majority leader, the whip, the Democratic Caucus maintain order and discipline. He’s a military man. He grasps that. Order and discipline … mean power and control and re-election. “That’s how you stay here, son. Follow the caucus, and you’ve got a 95 percent change of being re-elected, term after term.”

He learns a new language, that of deniability — the passive voice: “It’s unfortunate that the bill was not passed …”

Months fly by. He changes. He’s somehow different. Back in the district for fundraising, he dresses better than he used to, better than his constituents. He speaks indirectly. Promises once proudly, firmly made are rephrased as mere statements of intent. Bloggers in the district notice. They compare the rhetoric of his campaign to the voting record and the press releases flowing from his House office each day. They don’t match up.

The new member of Congress is called to task, as bloggers callously reprint a sentence from his announcement to run made months before:

[C]ome voting time, I don’t care whether an idea is Republican or Democrat, if it makes sense and will benefit the folks of this district and our country I will support it.

He cares now. He’s in the club. He wants to stay there.

In the summer of 2012, he sends me another letter: “I need your help.”

I flash with anger, yelling, “Goddamn it, you need my help? What the fuck are you going to do for me?”

And I don’t send him another $25 check.

photo credits:
• House Chamber: Clerk of the House
• 2006 House freshman class: Stephen Crowley, The New York Times

xpost: Scholars and Rogues


Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

August 12, 2010 at 11:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Dr. Denny,
    I can sense the anguish in your blog and often find myself in a similar state of mind. It seems to me that there is almost no hope for a aspiring politician to survive in D.C. unless they conform to the “required” standards. The bit about how your representative got yelled at for eating with a GOP colleague really sums it up. But I ask you this: What can we, the “little” people, do to keep our representatives from falling into the snarls of Washington politics?

    Nick DeMarco

    August 12, 2010 at 8:55 pm

  2. Read. Read as much as you can about politics — and don’t just read mainstream media. There’s a variety of really smart people writing on blogs such as Agonist, FireDogLake and so on.

    When you find good pieces, circulate them (like mine?) — email the links to friends.

    Follow politics closely. Follow economic policy closely. Pay less attention to the stories about conflict and personality.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Dr. Denny

    August 13, 2010 at 11:46 am

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