Erik’s story: I am the 99%

How John Conyers and Thaddeus McCotter inadvertently drove me into the streets.

In 2007, after the media ignored hundreds of thousands of anti-Iraq war protesters I had joined on my first trip to Washington, D.C., I took matters into my own hands. I decided to see Rep. John Conyers, head of the House Judiciary Committee. I wanted to ask why, despite his vocal support for impeachment, he wasn’t pushing proceedings against President Bush and his partner in crime, Dick Cheney.

While I waited to see him, I stood in front of his office every day with a sign that read: “Impeach Cheney. Fast.” And I fasted.

It took about about 30 days, but Conyers finally agreed to meet at a union hall in Dearborn. He was very cordial; we spoke at length about impeachment. Ultimately, he said he didn’t want to pursue it because it would threaten Barack Obama’s run for the presidency.

I wasn’t pleased with the idea that defending the constitution was contingent on political outcomes, but it was an answer.  So, I moved on to talk to my own Congressional representative.

To give you some idea how politically plugged in I wasn’t at the time, I didn’t know who that was. I had to look it up, and as it turned out, it was Republican Thaddeus McCotter. I stopped at his office to find out when he would be in town.  The receptionist directed me to the scheduler, who at first mistook me for a CNN reporter, promised to call me back, went on vacation, then took another job elsewhere. The new scheduler gave me the number of the district director, who sent me to the communications director, who led me to the chief of staff.

No one seems to believe me when I tell them that none of these people could tell me when Rep. McCotter would be in town, but fortunately I videotaped all of my conversations with them.

Ultimately, I did manage to pose my questions to Andrew Anewzis, McCotter’s chief of staff. He promised to “rifle off the answers in writing.” After waiting for a response for a month, my willingness to deal with any of them in good faith waned, and I announced I would run against him as the Green Party candidate.

I was taught that if you have a problem with the government, you write a letter to your Congressperson, meet with them, hold a town hall, circulate a petition, and if all else fails, run against them. This was the next logical step.  I had no expectation that I would defeat McCotter, but I thought he would at least have to meet me in a debate or candidate forum.

I thought that the appearance of being disconnected from constituents was poisonous, but sadly, no. Without making one public appearance, in the face of the “Yes we can!” tidal wave, Thaddeus McCotter still held on to win with 51% of the vote.

A year later, McCotter predicted that representatives who supported health care reform would return home to get an unpleasant earful from their constituents. For some reason, he would not be one of those unhappy politicians. While other members of Congress held town hall meetings and met with the people they represented (and some that they didn’t), McCotter remained in seclusion.

He opted instead to hold “telephone town halls,” in which he randomly selected who would be called to take part, and his staff screened the questions he would answer. As his communications director told me, McCotter prefers this method because it is more effective. I asked to participate, but for some reason was never “randomly selected.”

However, Rob, my best friend, and his wife, Dinah, were selected.  After receiving the call, Dinah told me she thought it was a practical joke. They never asked to take part in a town hall meeting. They were never given the option to ask a question of the Congressman.  They are not even in his district, just adjacent to it. As the conversation continued, the questions seemed to focus on the detrimental effect health care reform would have on Medicare. Rob receives Medicare.

If it wasn’t clear enough before, it should be now. This was not a town hall; it was an infomercial.

I say all that to say this:  I have been inside the machine, and I can tell you from first-hand experience, the machine doesn’t do what it was built to do.  Like a disconnected fire alarm hanging on a wall, the mechanisms that make our democracy work are similarly dysfunctional and equally hazardous.

Rudimentary assumptions need to be challenged for anything to happen to fix this. Assumptions such as “our representatives must listen to their constituents.” Clearly, they feel they no longer have any need for us. Worst of all, they may be right.

During McCotter’s most recent coronation, I attended a Tea Party rally with a petition in hand. The petition asked the Congressman to revise his policies so that constituents can formally request an in-person, town hall meeting. In three hours, I collected 43 signatures. It was relatively easy. As you may recall, the original Tea Party was a direct action protesting taxation without representation. It was just a matter of reminding them of this fact.

What kind of democracy must we have if McCotter’s supporters disagree with him at such a fundamental level? I wish this contradiction were peculiar in Washington.  I suspect it is not.

It is not enough to remember that patriots froze to death at Valley Forge. We must remember why. The machine is broken. It doesn’t do what it was built to do. It is our civic responsibility to repair it.