Last Wednesday, my first stop on swearing in morning was at the office of Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ 8). Her husband, parents, and in-laws were at her office early, along with her staff to greet everyone who had been invited to stop for a visit. She was thrilled because it was one of the few occasions where all of them were in the same city at the same time. That day, she was one of 19 Democrats not to vote for Nancy Pelosi for speaker. She later read the First Amendment of the Constitution on the floor. Today, she is in a medically induced coma after being shot at a constituent event in a public shopping center. BIPAC helped her in 2006 over her Republican opponent in the open seat general election. She was one of the many candidates we interviewed that cycle. She came alone without handlers, and her appointment was made at the recommendation of business people who thought we should talk. We haven’t helped or opposed her since, yet she is one of the few members of Congress to call on occasion just to chat about the issues. One of the things we talked about that morning was the need for the returning members to get to know the Republican freshman class. All those nonincumbents BIPAC backed who were sworn in with the freshman class … charity keeps me from mentioning how many offered us coffee or donuts.
From my exposure to her, she is everything you’ve read she is and her remarkable traits aren’t often so evident in everyone we meet in Congress. I could tell you stories about her kindness, but they wouldn’t be unique because thousands have been told since the weekend. But, the other 534 members of Congress aren’t ogres to the people who deal with them. I know that because audiences always tell me I’m wrong to say Representative or Senator XYZ isn’t an ally or should be defeated. Imagine that any other member you know had been shot on Saturday; we’d all be telling similar stories of personal encounters or efforts made to handle a constituent problem. Perhaps grassroots managers and PAC managers need to do a better job in humanizing the elected officials with whom we deal. Their personal stories may not be as compelling as Speaker John Boehner (R-OH 8 ) – bar, lots of kids – or Representative Bobby Schilling (R-IL 17) – pizza parlor, lots of kids, but everyone has a backdrop that explains who they are as fellow citizens.
As for congressional staffers whose lives we now know are on the line too, let’s be less dismissive of the time we get to spend with them rather than the member. That new chair of Ways and Means, former staffer; that new chair of Energy and Commerce, former staffer. And, these examples are only but a few. The new legislative aide your visiting executive won’t see because who wants to explain an issue to a kid … did you just turn down an appointment with a future Representative Dave Camp (R-MI 4) or Fred Upton (R-MI 6)?
How about we take another look at our hesitancy about primaries too. Post-2010 isn’t the best time to urge us to rethink our policy on this because the February through September experience was so ghastly. It is hard not to remember how the current Republican House leadership came to Congress. Boehner and Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA 5) won their first terms by challenging the so-called conservative establishment. Each was the moderate, business favorite under attack from the social issue network.
The biggest lesson of the weekend should be to remain careful about what we believe and the sources we accept as credible. Last Saturday, the internet was full of misinformation and underinformed rant. Giffords wasn’t dead, and she wasn’t shot by a Mexican illegal, a Muslim radical, or a tea party fanatic. Upon hearing she was shot/dead, I found the streaming video from the Tucson CBS outlet, assuming the voices on the scene would be the most reliable. All of their reports quoted staffers, hospital sources, and family members that she was alive and in surgery. The twitter world repeated false reports from dubious outlets claiming otherwise. What ever happened to the two source rule? Is this unfiltered internet where your employees are getting their supposed facts about the great issues of the day?
Generally, reliable news organizations admitted after the weekend that they no longer have the kind of field reporters or independent fact checkers to handle breaking news. If what passes for legitimate sources don’t know if a member of Congress is dead or alive, why would we trust them about what’s going on with the upcoming health care debate. Hardly life or death, but do we want our stakeholders learning about the Korean trade agreement from so-called opinion leaders, or you?
If you don’t like the political rhetoric, change the discourse. If you don’t think bloggers should get so much attention, find someone more informed to follow. If you can’t stand the cable blabbers, tune them out. At the very least, scrub your websites or issue alerts of all inflammatory, ridiculous language. Take down links to sources who can’t possibly be informed about the issues that matter to you. Don’t outsource the dialogue or let outsiders who don’t share your mission tell your members/employees what to think or do about elections, candidates, or public policy.