I’m one of those people. I’m a swamp-dwelling, fancy suit and loafer wearing, political campaign donating, political insider. I have worked for Senator Ted Kennedy, three members of the US House of Representatives, and most recently I worked in President Obama’s administration as a senior advisor to the Commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration. I have been a lobbyist, a political consultant, and press secretary. By now you probably have an opinion about me – and probably not very flattering one. What if you knew that I have also had season tickets to DC United in Major League Soccer for 22 years, think a perfect meal is tacos from a street vendor, and that I spend more time saying I should exercise than I actually spend exercising? I’m one of those people too.
A lot of people say that those of us who live and work in Washington need to understand the rest of America better. I agree. When you live and work in a place it is easy to forget that not everyone thinks like you and your friends do. Worse, it is easy to assume that anyone who doesn’t think like you is foolish, wrong, or corrupt. “After all,” we think, “everyone I know sees the world as I see it, most of my friends on Facebook agree with me, as do most of the people I follow on Twitter or Instagram. The news I watch on TV explains why my friends and I are right. Anyone who sees the world differently must not know what I know, or worse they do know and don’t care.” This is true for me and my friends, and for you and yours. We all tend to live near people who are similar to us. We go to church with people who share our beliefs, and we socialize with people who share our views.
But of course not everyone thinks like we do. There are good, honest, hardworking people who cannot fathom how we come to the conclusions we do. Recognizing this, and trying to understand how others view the world, is important in a democratic system like ours.
Just as people like me are working hard to better understand people in Santa Rosa, I encourage you to learn about us as well. I cannot speak for everyone who works in politics, just as you can’t speak for everyone in New Mexico, but there are some generalizations that I think hold true.
The first thing to know is that most of us came to Washington to make America and the world a better place. We do not all always agree on what that better place looks like – more or less immigration, stricter or looser gun control, and so on – but most of us came here with a vision of a better world. We came to Washington to work for a Senator or Representative whose views we largely shared. Or we came here to work for an organization like the National Rifle Association or the Sierra Club, whose missions we wanted to help advance. A lot of people stay in those jobs, and a lot move on to other organizations, companies that do public relations for politics, or lobby for issues you have heard of (gun rights, the environment) and others with which you may not be familiar (for example federal regulation of laboratory developed tests, which are a very big deal to the people who work with them).
You should also know that most of the people who work on the staffs of Senators or Representatives are smart, work hard, and are honest. Working for a Representative or Senator can be exciting and rewarding, but it can also be terrible. The hours are long and unpredictable. The pay is less (sometimes a lot less) than working for an interest group or a private company. Congressional staff members spend most of their time responding to mail, answering phones, or meeting with the advocates and lobbyists who want the Congressman to vote one way or another, and who often disagree with each other. Most of the people who write and call Congress are angry, making the days even harder (if you want to make an impression on a Congressman thank him for something). The offices are small and cramped. I was a Chief of Staff for a Representative from California – the top job for a Congressman – and I shared an office with a college intern. In 2009 I worked on health care reform and was given a small desk with a broken chair in the middle of a room with three other staff members and an intern. When I worked in Congress I would routinely get work calls on Christmas day, I have had to cancel vacations because of work, and once I got a death threat. For a number of years, some Congressional staff members and interns (who by and large work for free) had offices that were converted storage cages in the attic of a building, complete with chicken wire. Exciting? Sometimes. Glamorous? Rarely.
Some people in Washington do end up makng a lot of money. Some lobbyists and lawyers are millionaires with several houses and very nice cars. But most of them did not start that way, and that is not why most of them came to Washington. There are much easier ways to get rich and famous than going into politics.
Of course not everyone here is honest and nice. Most are good, but some cheat or are lazy (or both). A lot are full of themselves and could really use a smack of reality. And just like people in Albuquerque or Atlanta, people here have good days and bad days, sick kids, divorces, and debt. In other words, people who work in politics are like people who work anywhere else. But, as a former Congressman for whom I worked says, “it’s the kind of job that you can’t pick your nose in your car.” I once got a call from an angry voter who said they saw my boss scratching himself while filling his gas tank. Another call came from someone upset that the Congressman was seen making out with a date on a park bench.
The final thing to know about Washington is that it is far more than politics. More than half a million people live here. There are teachers, policemen, construction workers, small business owners, and reporters. My wife and I live on a nice block in part of town known for restaurants and nightlife. Three of our neighbors are architects, another trades stocks. The kids on our block range in age from newborns to high schoolers. We are down the street from an auto repair shop and a laundromat. Our neighborhood has a hardware store and a drycleaner, and the soccer field next to the school down the block is almost always full. Washington, like Santa Rosa or Seattle, is a place with people doing the best they can at whatever it is they do. It just so happens that what a lot of what we do here is the best we can for you.
Those of us who live in Washington and work in politics need to listen to people outside of our small circles. We need to trust that they are good, honest, hardworking people who want the best for their families and their country – even when we disagree. I ask that you do the same for us.
First published in the Guadalupe County Communicator, May 4 2017