In just two short weeks, I've learned two striking things about politics in our commonwealth. First of all, despite what voter turnout may indicate, Virginians are very much interested in the direction of their government. Alright, the cynical of you may think that of course people get involved, greed is the base motivating factor of all human existence. And its true. Everybody wants something; at least most of these people want it for at least one more person other than themselves, though. Even I was a little surprised by the level of activity. The second thing I've learned is that most people have no idea what they're doing when it comes to grassroots politics.
Certainly, some of it is innocent enough, to be blamed on the little focus that is given in American classrooms to civics education. Indeed, I get a little proud when someone calls me and tells me they were told to call their congressman, or ask to speak to their Representative, or plead us to do something about Social Security. Other misguided attempts at activism are a little more disturbing. Today I recieved several hundred pages of photocopied federal agency forms, mostly from human resources, from a gentleman who lives in Delegate Moran's district (who as so much admitted he suffers from schizophrenia) outlining his belief of systematic torture within the USDA, his release from the USDA, and his banishment from his local public library. He sent a copy to both his delegate, senator, all the members of the Courts committee and several federal representatives. Needless to say, it went straight in the trash (but only after I scanned it for possible threats), much like the letter from one Jack Mills, who is apparently quite fond of the word pettifogger.pet·ti·fog·ger
- A petty, quibbling, unscrupulous lawyer.
- One who quibbles over trivia.
I first crossed paths with Mr. Mills last week when he was wheeling his report around to all the new members. I looked out the door, got up with a smile to meet this new visitor, stuck my hand out but was met with a report in my chest. "I'm Jack Mills and I want a judge impeached." He then began to expound upon the supposed sins of this particular judge, which he claims include child abuse and molestation. Not the judge directly, mind you, but because of his gross incompetance. The disturbing thing about Mr. Mills is how disconcerting his claims sound, prima facie. Certainly you have to be rather doubtful about the details, but this is the sort of thing that involves you from the get go, which is a particularly unfortunate thing when your co-worker needs your help and and when said co-worker is also of the sort that has little tolerance for anyone who doesn't reside in the district. Being the naive young idealist (or perhaps just terribly shy and polite man) that I am, I got about 5 minutes of Mr. Mills before I was pulled away. I learned later that Mr. Mills is somewhat of a fixture at the General Assembly Building, one of those eccentric figures who is tolerated but ignored, to the point where you almost have to pity him if his allegations are by some twist of fate true.
Other activism faux pas are not so disturbing as they are just embarassing, particularly if the group committing them is on your side. The VCDL is particularly guilty of such breaks in convention. They have a nasty little practice of having all their members mail all the delegates in the General Assembly. Now, from what I understand they've backed off their pace of several years ago. However, our inbox will often be flooded with emails by activists from Richmond, Falls Church, Newport News, and every other locality NOT in our district imploring us or if so much as directing us to vote down a ban on soft grips, you know, the kind that's not as rough on your hands when you're holding your favorite pistol. Now here's a dirty little secret: If they're not from the district, we simply do not care. Emails will be deleted, letters trashed, phone calls get a quick nod and then "Have a good day." Personal visits get a slightly different response, but certainly constituents come first. Some may throw their hands up at this. How dare we ignore the people of Virginia?!!!!! The people's voice must be heard!!!!
Here's the problem: there's only so much time in the day. Do you honestly think we are going to tally up the responses and inform the delegate from Bumbleville, who has been in subcommittee since 7:30 and is heading to floor before his bill comes up in General Laws while he's supposed to be at the caucus meeting, about how the people of Bumtropolis feel about hb2341, The Virginia Organgrinder Registration Act of 2006? More importantly, should the delegate really care? Chances are he'll never have to work for your vote. And emailing all the Committee members? Try public comment. Certainly legislators want citizen input, but trust me; just about every bill will have SOMEONE saying SOMETHING about it. A subcommittee hearing on a "fish bill" today was met with an overflowing crowd of citizens ranging from suit-clad businessmen to flannel-wearing farmers to bushy-bearded environmentalists. I can assure you your voice is being heard. Now some may take offense to this, thinking that only lobbyists get our attention. First of all, lobbyist is a very loose term. Doctors, farmers, anybody with an agenda counts as a lobbyists. You don't need a crackberry, a checkbook (but only between sessions), and an id badge. If you've got an issue, we've got a second. I for one take a moment with anyone who comes to the office. Naturally, though, the delegate will only see constituents or lobbyists working on our issues. Secondly, constituents will always come first. A lobbyist will wait outside, and if they don't, you better believe there's going to be a stern word from the LA.
However, we still have problems with simply misguided communication. A particularly annoying bill was HB1368. This has got to be the absolutely worst piece of legislation proposed in at least the past decade. For those non-wonks, HB1368 is a bill the would require the unanimous permission of any homeowner within 65 yards of a playing field in order for a game or practice to be conducted before 8 a.m., after 6 p.m., or on a Sunday. Obviously this could have a quick squelching effect on athletic events in the Commonwealth. But there are some things to keep in mind here. First of all, even the sponsor Delegate Hull admitted that this was a terrible piece of legislation. He only introduced in on request (though I'll admit he ended up shooting both feet by admitting that it was bad in public. Come on, you still introduced it for the constituent; at least let him THINK you agree with him. Don't embarass the poor guy by making him look like a mean man sneering at the children from his porch, no matter what the case may be). Secondly, they know how to kill these things. At least let it get out of Committee and become a real problem before you go absolutely nuts. I swear to god, I think every little league dad and soccer mom was in contact with the General Assembly over the past week. They could have waited until it reported out, or at the most gotten their top leaders to speak against in committee. Nope, they did mass organization. And it was a very disparate group.
Of the hundreds of emails I recieved on hb1368, only five were from constituents. The rest were either from NOVAites or those from the Beach or Richmond. Many were quite polite, but some were quite outragreous in their rhetoric. Call me a crummudgeon, but to me totalitarianism requires a slightly more egregious offense to human decency than preventing a football game from taking place close to a home. Yet such claims were bandied about with little regard for their impact. A quite common fallacy was that this would somehow halt all athletic activity in the commonwealth, turning our children into mush-headed vegetables. Even in NOVA, though, I think children should have been able to get a little bit of physical activity. I will admit that some were very well-written and even poigiant, such as one woman who related an anectdote about a dying relative who was soothed by the sound of playing children. However, there were some other lapses of judgement in prose, such as one email (that was merely related to me) that implied that this was somehow part of an insidious plot by the religious right to instill our Sabbath in "heathen" children. On the other hand, though, I did in fact recieve one email (from a Soccer coach, no less) that praised the bill as a positive move towards instilling young athletes with solid Judeo-Christian values.
Perhaps the most annoying part of all this was that many parents made no bones about emailing multiple delegates, not even bothering to bcc the recipients. I need not make my point again, suffice it to say that I hope groups will take a lesson and conserve their meager time and resources. With this, I must give praise to a certain group. Now pay attention. This is the ONLY time this will ever happen on this blog......
Kudos to Equality Virginia for its great job of organizing its activists. They only email their General Assembly members. They only bring us their constituents. The group that I spoke with was polite and well-informed. I'll admit that there are some rogue agents who go out on their own and hunt everyone down, sometimes quite rudely. Also, they send invitations for their recpetion to everyone, but quite frankly, it's suicide for a Republican to show up. Seriously, they have people taking notes at these things. And we'll probably never agree on all the issues surrounding sexual politics. But at least I can tolerate listening to them, and at least I know they understand the principles of influence.
Even the state government could learn a lesson from them. We are flooded constantly with government reports and files. Do you know how many different ways you can read the budget? There's the popular version, the summary version, the line-item, etc. etc. We simply do not have the room to keep all of the paper that is generated each session. And for what? We don't keep things that are outside of our area of experise (for example, I don't think Allen Louderback kept too many reports from the Virginia Sentencing Commission), and even if we do need numbers, we can just call the agency up, or better yet, get the report off the net. Hopefully one day they'll learn.
But so it is. Lobbyists come and go. The pages toss the 20-page report from the Dr. Suess Memorial Commission, Division of Turtle Stacking on my desk. And I do my best to make sure my fellow citizens get a fair shake from their delegate, above all the sound and fury, signifying nothing.