This summer seemed to be a utopia for political junkies. With the stimulus package, the cap and trade energy bill and the health care debate all happening in rapid succession, the past few months made for one of the most exciting times Congress has seen in quite a while. As luck would have it, I was incredibly fortunate enough to have a front row seat — or so I thought.
My internship with Democratic Congressman Dennis Moore of the Third District of Kansas, though incredibly enriching, was quite possibly the most frightening experience of my life. Given the unique hostility of the political world this summer, I probably would have been safer working alongside the guys from The Deadliest Catch than I was working for a Democrat in Kansas.
From the day I started, I was blindsided by culture shock. Raised in New England, I grew up with a set of values considerably different than those at my new home in the Kansas City suburbs. To clarify just why, it’s important to understand that the entire New England delegation to Congress is blue, while the entirety of Kansas is comparatively anemic: It hemorrhages dark red. The lone exception is my congressman, Dennis Moore, who is a Democrat in a fairly conservative district.
In Congress for over a decade, Congressman Moore is a seasoned pro, especially because of his status as a Blue Dog Democrat. If my internship were at a circus, which it kind of was, then he’d be the guy on the tightrope. Because his district is so conservative, he has to perform the delicate balancing act of championing progressive reform with one hand, while keeping things fiscally responsible and making constituents happy with the other. Essentially, this means there’s always a reason to hate on Congressman Moore.
As a Blue Dog, Congressman Moore gets as much attention from the President as the First Dog. This is simply because without the support of moderate Democrats, President Obama can kiss his health care dreams goodbye. Naturally, Democratic leadership and President Obama spent a lot of this summer trying to lobby people like my boss. Many in the district, however, interpreted this as Congressman Moore getting cozy with Pelosi, a notion not readily accepted in the Sunflower State.
As a Blue Dog, Congressman Moore is generally in favor of health care reform that offers a public option and won’t add to the national deficit. Because these specific conditions weren’t explicitly stated in the original version of H.R. 3200, he couldn’t exactly say he was for or against “the bill.” For constituents who were looking for either a yes or no, this wasn’t the response they wanted to hear.
“Tea-baggers” would literally send tea bags in the mail, protesters would stage rallies outside the office on a regular basis and some constituents even intentionally jammed our phone lines by organizing massive robo-calls. The only break from the action we ever got was when Michael Jackson died — because if Kansans like anything more than heckling their Congressmen, it’s apparently the moonwalk.
Usually, though, it was the interns that were taking the brunt of the heat. Like most interns in any office at any company, a lot of my time was spent at the front desk either on the phone or on reception duty in between projects. Though that’s a cakewalk in some offices, this wasn’t the case for me. I was given the most exposure to unhappy constituents, which is the real reason why this job had me sweating bullets. Taxpayers never seemed so menacing.
Your mother may have once told you, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Apparently, congressional constituents are a huge exception. Since I’d never been exposed to widespread conservatism, my experiences with informed constituents were incredibly thought-provoking and educational. The vast majority of calls to the office, however, were from angry people who weren’t interested in having a discussion and just wanted to complain about the Congressman or convey nasty messages to him. Picture a medieval-style raid, complete with pitchforks and torches — that’s what I got everyday via telephone.
To the constituents calling, since I was on the other end of the line, I suddenly became a member of Congress. I was the tangible being on which people took out their rage. I had never realized I was so sensitive! Some of the anger I heard from people had me thankful that the conversations took place on the phone and not face-to-face. Other times, I wasn’t so lucky and had to meet some of these irate people in person.
Being at the front desk, I was pretty much the only barrier between the door and the Congressman. Sounds cool, right? Well, it was until we started getting threats. That’s right, people were so angry over health care that they were actually threatening harm upon Congressman Moore. Every single time that door in front of me opened, I’d take a deep breath, praying that it wasn’t a lunatic bent on violence. It was a reality I struggled to accept.
It wasn’t conservatism that scared me this summer. In fact, I’m grateful for finally being exposed to it en masse. What worried me was that my safety, along with that of everyone else who worked in the office, was compromised because of our Congressman’s political views. Seeing this anger broadcast from town halls on television is one thing, but being there on the front lines made it that much more dangerous and that much more personal. In retrospect, I wish that front row seat had an airbag.