When I served in the legislature, there was a guy who e-mailed me often to remind me of what an idiot I was. He didn’t like the way I voted on a bill, and he let me know about it — again and again and again (most people don’t realize it, but Colorado state legislators don’t have a full-time staff, so when you’re e-mailing or calling your state representative or senator, the person taking the message is probably the legislator himself or herself).
Honestly, this fellow’s e-mails didn’t bother me that much — I figured that I worked for him, and it was his right to sound off. It was just part of my job.
Every member of the state legislature has plenty of stories of being buttonholed, cajoled, mocked, berated or pulled aside at the grocery store to be dressed down by an angry constituent. Sometimes the heat of elections didn’t subside with the November vote. I know one legislator whose defeated opponent showed up at the Capitol to follow him around, attending committee hearings and criticizing him for all to hear. Each and every legislator has a “nastygram” hall of fame.
The point is, when you serve in elective office at any level, you will hear from constituents and political opponents who disagree with you — often strongly. Sometimes it crosses the line into rudeness and downright hostility. But — and here’s the key point — it’s part of the job. Of course nobody has a right to threaten an elected official (that sometimes happens, and the State Patrol handles those cases).
But we live in a society where the people have a right to communicate their discontent to the people who work for them.
I don’t have a lot of sympathy for members of Congress whining about the fact that people are showing up at town hall meetings to express their vehement opposition to the health care plan. Of course, in the cases where that opposition becomes uncontrolled or violent, it is absolutely wrong. But the vast majority of the plan’s opponents are expressing legitimate frustration and concern.
I take exception to the argument that people who disagree with the plan are “planted” and therefore their voices should be discounted. The fact is that there are hundreds of groups, on the left and right, trying to get people to attend town meetings. It’s been that way for years. Does the fact that I received an e-mail notifying me of a congressional town meeting from a Tea Party organization or MoveOn.org make my opinion any less important? That’s a cop-out on the part of politicians who don’t like the fact that, all of a sudden, people are noticing how they are voting.
If members of Congress are troubled by the fact that people are paying attention and watching what they’re up to, maybe they should find another line of work. Step up to the plate and defend your beliefs, Washington. Explain to us why you want to reach into every corner of our lives, why you want more access to our pocketbooks, why you want to insert yourselves into the most private decisions our families will face.
And if you can’t take the heat, for heaven’s sake get out of the kitchen.
Rob Witwer, who grew up in Evergreen and currently lives in Genesee, is a former member of the state House of Representatives.