As someone who has watched West Wing in it’s entirety at least half a dozen times, there was something familiar but yet surreal about walking down a marble hallway lined with Congressional offices. I knocked on door 215, Rep. Mimi Walters, and waited to see if I would be locked out…
I was greeted by Luis and another intern (whose name I can’t recall… maybe Ali or Atif?). Very nice guys. Luis is a college intern out from Irvine, and I introduced myself.
“Hey there, my name’s Jeff. I’m a constituent, I live in Irvine, and I’m in town for work. I had tried contacting the office to say I’d be in town but never heard back, so I thought I’d just stop by, I hope that’s ok. Also, I should be really upfront and say I’m not a big fan.”
I said it super charming, I promise.
“I know you are aware that there are a lot of angry people back home, and that there is mobilization and a lot of groups forming.”
“Yeah, we answer a lot of the phone calls.”
“I bet that’s a long day, I hope people are nice to you even if they disagree.”
“They are, almost everyone is very friendly.”
“Well, the group that I’m most active in is a group that calls itself the California 45th. We’re definitely Democrat leaning, but we don’t think of ourselves as being partisan and we have a lot of members who don’t identify as Democrats. I like to think of us as the most moderate of the groups in terms of temper, we’re not yellers. We don’t have official leaders, but I’m kind of unofficially part of a leadership group.”
Around this point Cody, the new scheduler, walks in, and Luis has me repeat a lot of what I’ve said to him. It’s all very friendly. During our chat, the other intern heads into the back office area. He comes out with Alex Lee, who introduces himself as one of Rep. Walter’s Legislative Aides. He invites me into Rep. Walter’s office (she’s not around at the time) to sit on her couch and have a real chat.
I go through my spiel again, and then continue.
“I’m not here to talk about policy issues, I’m more interested in having a reasonable conversation about how we can turn down the volume on the disagreements and have stronger dialogue. I know we’re demanding a town hall, and after what happened in Utah last night I’m sure you’re afraid of a screaming match… I thought it might be helpful to have someone you could have a respectful and reasonable conversation with about how that town hall could be a more constructive session where we feel like we’ve been heard, and where Rep. Walters feels like she’s not walking into an ambush. The only way you’ll be able to accomplish that is by working with us ahead of time.”
I think Alex wasn’t quite sure what to make of me at this moment in time, he was thankful and receptive, but he started to give me some boilerplate response about how they’re always thankful to hear from constituents, and how I hope I know that we can always call or write if I have questions about any specific legislation or votes…
That’s when the conversation started to get more real.
“Alex, if the only way I can find out what Rep. Walters doing is to get a hold of a congressional staffer, then your team needs to do a better job of getting her message out.”
As an example of her not telling people what she was doing, I started to say that I am a small business owner in Irvine whose main client is a federal contractor, and that I’m gay...
“Oh, you mean her vote on the Maloney amendment…” and he proceeded to tell me that she felt forced into that vote or jeopardize ongoing military construction projects. He added that shortly thereafter she voted on another bill that did support the LGBT protections but it wasn’t widely reported, and he emphasized that she did not support discrimination.
My response was that I didn’t want to talk about policy, but I did want to point out that I shouldn’t have had to ask to get that answer. Rep. Walters *knows* that this is a concern of many of her constituents and she owes us a public statement explaining the two votes, especially if she’s been misunderstood.
I then used the example of a conversation that I’ve seen in one of the Facebook groups regarding two letters from her on abortion. She wrote one of her constituents defending the defunding of Planned Parenthood using the specter of videos, and the official inquiry, and how indictments occurred. I let Alex know that we are a well-educated and informed constituency who knows full well that the videos were doctored, the inquiry confirmed that, and the indictments were for the people who created them. The constituent wrote her back demanding a real answer, and in the second letter Walters said she was a Catholic and she had to vote her conscience.
I looked at him and said, “Listen, we disagree, a lot, and not everyone liked that answer… but there was respect and acknowledgment in that conversation because at least this was a real answer. We deserve real answers on issues like this, or the LGBT protections, or the Stream Protection Rule that don’t insult our intelligence. We shouldn’t have to ask for them and only get them in private correspondence.”
Apparently the Stream Protection Rule is part of Alex’s portfolio because he started to talk about it, and I stopped him and said… “Whatever the reason is, don’t just tell me. Put together a statement and post it on Facebook.” He gave me a face when I said Facebook and I said, “Listen, like it or not Facebook is the number one way Rep. Walters is communicating with her constituents right now and she’s blowing it. Her statements are coming off as hyper-partisan and tone deaf. There are legitimate questions in the comments that are being ignored. You might have a great reason to vote against the Stream Protection Rule but you aren’t telling us what it is - other than to say 'Republicans have a better way' and 'regulations are hurting small businesses’. We don’t have small business coal mines in Orange County, but we do have a population who overwhelmingly believes in the human impact on climate change. We keep getting directed to betterway.gov or her newsletter and I read them both… there are no answers there."
I then segued into the fundraising emails about the Women’s March and the rallies, and how as one of the people attending the rallies it was disingenuous and upsetting that she thought we were paid to be there and somehow un-American. He stopped me because “he can’t legally discuss fundraising activities” but we kept talking about the rallies. He expressed frustration that the Irvine office is very welcome to appointments, but that they are really there to do case work for people who need help with Veteran’s Affairs or Social Security, and when hundreds of people show up they aren’t prepared for those situations and there are concerns about fire laws and building security. That staff isn't hired for these types of situations.
I said to him, “We know that. We don’t go there because we think the people inside can help us. We go there because we don’t know how else to be heard. We call, we write, we post, and this seems to be the only thing that gets any real attention… if you give us a more effective way to be heard by the right people, we’ll go there instead - but the rallies are going to continue because it’s all we’ve got. You're the ones who can change that.” I agreed that we need to be sensitive to things like fire laws, and security, and that we want to do everything we can to be respectful to local law enforcement and we feel we have, but that our rallies shouldn't be surprises… I even told him I would invite him to them on Facebook.
At this point we finally circled back to the town hall. They do not have any plans for a town hall, other than an acknowledgment that this is an inevitable topic. They don’t even know if Rep. Walters is coming home for District Week yet. I repeated that when they’re ready to start thinking about a town hall, that I would like to help them plan a format other than “two hours of screaming”. He said that if/when it happens, he wouldn’t be part of the planning but that he would definitely pass along my name to whoever that would be, and he was very appreciative of the offer.
If this read like a combative or contentious conversation, it really wasn’t. It was a friendly and comfortable chat, that also happened to be very open and honest. We both laughed, we both talked about how it’s frustrating that respectful disagreement has gone out of style. I could tell he was frustrated that he thinks Rep. Walters is misunderstood… but at the same time starting to realize that they need to take a more active role in fixing that. I don’t know if he’ll take me up on the offer to help, but I hope he does. He did send me a nice thank you note about an hour after I left.
So that was my *first* day in Congress. Because my work brings me to DC every few months, it won’t be my last.