Saturday, January 14, 2017

So, grassroots politics has a lot of growing to do

I thought that, for all of my blustering about politics, I need to be an active participant in every way that I can. I attended a Town Hall Meeting with Representative Jim Sensenbrenner this afternoon at the Waukesha Public Library. My intention, here, is to write an op. ed. to The Freeman, that Waukesha newspaper. So, edits and thoughts are greatly appreciated. 

To Whom it May Concern, 
I attended the open Town Hall Meeting hosted by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, State Representative Adam Neylon, and State Senator Chris Kapenga. This was first Town Hall meeting since returning from living abroad. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I did my homework and wrote a first, second, and third tier question if in case others asked similar questions. 

The first several questions focused on Congress' meeting to begin talking about repealing the Affordable Care Act. Rep. Sensenbrenner consistently commented that he does not want to pass anything without knowing what was in it, quoting then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, "You have to pass the bill to find out what is in it" no less than three times, suggesting she passed the bill without knowing what is inside of it. Upon further investigation, she said, "We need to pass the bill, so you can see what is in it away from the fog of controversy." Linguistically, that is a different sentence, but I am not here to quibble over proper pronoun use and cherry-picked quotations.  

In response to a question (I am not sure the specifics), Representative Sensenbrenner began talking about an art project in Washington. He said that a group of art teachers gather student art and display it in the hallway between their offices and the House Chamber. He talked about how the art teachers chose an inappropriate piece of artwork. He further explained that it was a piece of student art that depicted police officers as pigs. Once again, the content of the art isn't the focus. His following sentence was something along the lines of 'there is a divide between teachers and the government. And, here in Wisconsin, all the high school teachers don't like the Republicans.' It was after that quote I began taking more detailed notes, because I knew I needed to write this piece for whomever would listen. 

Representative Sensenbrenner's speech patterns and idioms set the tone for the entire meeting. He spoke in broad brushstrokes like this, which, in my opinion, further divide the parties. Representative Sensenbrenner also spoke in a curt and combative manner to his constituents who were asking questions about the Affordable Care Act, how he is going to use his voice in the House to make sure all people's voices were heard, as well as many other sentiments. 

Then, he called my name. I was lucky enough to still have my first tier question. This is my question, verbatim:

"Gentlemen, thank you so much for taking the time to be here and listen to us, your constituents. Representative Sensenbrenner, as one of those high school teachers, whom you broadly painted to all dislike Republicans, I understand the necessity of both the freedom of speech and the freedom of expression. I also understand the responsibility with which one must handle both of them. The President Elect's inflammatory and derogatory remarks on women, racial and religious minorities, and news media have spurred a seemingly impassible chasm in our already divided country. How will you, as well as congress, hold the President Elect accountable for his words and actions? It seems as though we're drawing lines in the sand that every time the President Elect goes 'too far' we erase it and draw it again. Where will you draw that line?" 

His immediate response was that the House of Representatives has no place in voting for the President Elect's cabinet, that he has no say in who will be in the cabinet. Then, he continued to say that he does not go around using those words, but he defends the President Elect's right to say them as much as my right to disagree with them. 

I said, "Thank you, sir, for that information. I did not know that piece about the House and Senate. However, that was not my question. My question was, 'Where do you draw the line in acceptable language?' How are you protecting your constituents from the things the President Elect is saying?" In response to my keeping the focus on the question and refusing his pivot, there were claps and nods of affirmation. 

His response was rapid fire, which cut me off, "Well, aren't you a teacher? Shouldn't you know that the House does not vote for the cabinet?" There were some cheers for his response, and I needed a second to reel back from that. 

I responded, "Sir, that is not an answer to my question. And, the tone with which you have conducted this meeting is both inappropriate and disrespectful to us, your constituents." 

Representative Sensenbrenner needed to call the room to quiet and reiterated that he can't control what the President Elect says and that it is within his right to say it. He also said that people need to responsibly use their words. 

And, then he moved on. 

About two or three speakers after me, Representative Sensenbrenner banged his gavel and said, "The more you clap and cheer the less questions we can answer," which took away our power to show if we agree or disagree with the speaker. It took away the community aspect and made it individuals with individual problems as opposed to a community feeling similarly about a topic. 

Throughout the meeting, several of Representative Sensenbrenner's comments were pointed and divisive. He did take a hard line on being careful with how he will respond to Russia's perceived influence in our election either for or against the President Elect depending on whom you ask. He referred to Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, past president of the University of Notre Dame as, "a proud, flaming liberal." (1:58 p.m. , 14 January 2017, Town Hall Meeting, Waukesha, WI), which states pretty clearly Representative Sensenbrenner's opinion of anyone left of center. This comment and opinions like this further divide this country along party lines. How can we possibly heal our country if our representative speaks so divisively of both the Democratic and Republican parties? 

Most of the this afternoon's town hall meeting focused on the Federal level, and consisted of people asking questions and sometimes being talked over. However, near 2:15 p.m., a gentleman stood up and asked  State Representative Adam Neylon and State Senator Chris Kapenga about voter suppression in Wisconsin. The gentleman suggested that if voting is a right, should there be an automatic registration process and photo ID  for anyone who turns 18. Representative Neylon's response was, "No." Senator Kapenga expounded saying that people need to make the effort to be engaged in the political process. It is not too much to ask people to register to vote. 

The gentleman followed up with it isn't necessarily about the  registration process, but what about living in the inner city and not having transportation to the voting booth or an ID to use if it is necessary. 

Senator Kapenga's response was something like, 'You don't have that problem.' 

The gentleman retorted, "How do you know that? How do you know my background?" 

Senator Kapenga said, "Are you a constituent of this district?" 

"Yes," the gentleman said.

"That's how I know," Senator Kapenga quipped.

"But, you don't know my background. How can you assume that?" The gentleman said, as murmurs spread across the room.

"You create problems in your own mind," Senator Kapenga stated. The room erupted in noise both in support and defense of his comment. (2:23 p.m., 14 January 2017, Town Hall Meeting). 

Representative Sensenbrenner banged his gavel and brought the question to the federal level by documenting South Carolina's initiative to have people without transportation call the DMV to drive them to their polling place. He said that 59 people used it (I have not verified this number or program), which he suggests it was not a successful venture. 

After the meeting was dismissed, I approached Representative Sensenbrenner and told him that the tone with which he spoke to me and many others was disrespectful and inappropriate. I assured him that I did not need or want an apology, but I wanted to tell him that his comments about me not knowing specific parts of the Constitution were uncalled for. 

He followed up with, "Every teacher should know the Constitution. If someone wants to become a citizen of the country, they need to know the Constitution. The people teaching our children should also know the Constitution." 

I responded with, "I am an English teacher. I studied literature. I don't expect you to know the inner workings of literary theory." 

"Literature is not the basis of our country. You should know the Constitution." 

Baffled, I responded to that with an idea that my knowing this aspect of the constitution is wrong or right, is not the point. I continued, "The point is the tone of this meeting was combative and defensive. I just wanted you to know how one of many of the people here perceived your message and tone."

"Well, your comments and questions were pejorative and derogatory to me."

At this point, a line began to form behind me, and with such a loaded statement, I felt pressured to answer quickly or not at all. So, I decided to get off of the hamster wheel. I thanked him for his time and exited. 

After the meeting, more than one person approached me, thanked me for my words and bravery, and said that his comments and composure were not atypical. I am not being brave. I am speaking my truth. I am standing up for what I believe. I am refusing to normalize this political climate. I am living my American dream--a dream in which people can hold respectful conversations, a dream in which the government listens to the people, and a dream in which people, all people, work towards unity. 

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