A Midwinter’s Night Fantasy

A healthy democracy requires discourse between our elected representatives and the people.  I don’t think being a representative is easy.  There are a lot of pressures and paradoxes faced every day which will make every representative appear on just about every point along the bum to hero continuum.  It will always be about perspective.  If I’m more liberal than my representative, just about everything he/she does will look like a mistake.  If I’m more conservative, then just about everything he/she does will also look like a mistake.  And, of course, the representative is making a single decision that is looked at as wrong by the majority of people.  So it’s certainly unrealistic to presume that any representative can make decisions that will please most of the constituents.   On top of that, there is tremendous pressure to honor the wishes of big donors and lobbyists.  Under the current campaign finance laws, there’s no way to win office without courting big dollars and no way to stay in office without paying homage to the agenda of those donors.

That being said, the strength and value of a representative cannot be measured by how often he/she agrees with my positions.  The measure should be how seriously the representative takes the responsibilities of the office.  Will the representative listen carefully to constituents who don’t agree with positions taken?  Will the representative try to balance the views/demands of constituents against the realities of campaign finance?  The best representatives can do what’s needed to get elected while still listening and educating constituents along the way.

My State Representative is Frank Foster.  I don’t agree with almost any of his positions and I have taken my responsibilities to engage him in discourse in my role as an active citizen.  Sadly, Mr. Foster has chosen to ignore my letters, emails, Facebook posts, etc.  In reading his Facebook page, it seems this is pretty common practice.  He thanks people who agree with him, he avoids answering any direct questions, and he essentially ignores those with whom he disagrees.  This, of course, leads to frustration in the people who are genuinely trying to engage in discourse.  People get infuriated when the person we pay to represent us marginalizes us simply because he either can’t or won’t answer our concerns.

So begins my Midwinter’s Night Fantasy in which Frank Foster, Socrates, and I are sitting around the fireplace and discussing his record, his outlook, and his philosophy of government.

MP: Welcome to my home.  I’m really glad that the two of you agreed to sit down with me so I can learn more about how Mr. Foster views his responsibilities as a State Representative.   I’ve gotten to the point that I think he’s not qualified, that he’s too young, and that he’s in the pocket of the people that helped him gain office.

S: Now, Mr. Pontoni, this conversation is going to go nowhere if you’ve already decided that Mr. Foster is all those things.

MP: Call me Mark, please.

S: Fine.  Mark, because Mr. Foster…er…Frank?

FF: Please

S: Fine. Mark, because Frank is young is neither his fault, nor a reason to discount his views.  Have you ever seen a young person have political success?

MP: Well, sure, I suppose.  John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jesus, and Teddy Roosevelt all were pretty young and while not all politicians certainly enjoyed a great deal of political success.

S: So you would agree that being young does not automatically make you unqualified?

MP: Sure, I guess.  But being young doesn’t guarantee success either.  Youthful exuberance has its limits. For every JFK, there’s probably 100 Dan Quayles.

FF: But Dan Quayle was Vice President of the United States, so it’s hard to argue with his “success.”

MP: But that’s my point.  Getting elected to something at a young age does not mean you’re successful.

S: This seems true, Frank.  Is the measure of a politician simply the highest office he achieves?

FF: It has to be part of it.  If you’re always losing elections, how effective can you be?  From my point of view, I’ve had a really great career so far.

S: But with your “success”, doesn’t there come some responsibility to add something to the common good?

FF: It can.  I think it depends on how that “common good” is defined.  If it means angering the people that helped me get to where I am, then I don’t think it’s worth it.

S: So if there’s a matter of conscience…something you feel strongly about….you don’t think you can stand up to your financial backers.

FF: I don’t think so.  I won’t win another election if I do.

S: But let’s say that you win another term in 2014, and then go on to win 2 Senate terms that would last until the mid 2020’s…

FF: Exactly!

MP: Let him finish his question, Frank.

S: If you go on to win and spend 14 years in the state legislature, but never once stood up for the right thing, would you feel you were successful?

FF: Principles are overrated.  Politics is a game and it will go on with or without me.

MP: But couldn’t you make the game better?

FF: I don’t see how.  I’ve been given a set of issues that I’m allowed to talk about publicly.  If I go beyond those things, I’ve been told I will never get a bill to see the light of day.

S: So it’s better in your mind to fill a seat for 14 years and as long as you make it to the finish line without angering your financial sponsors, that should be enough?

FF: I don’t know that I’d say it exactly like that, but there is wisdom to what you say.  Staying in the game is important.

MP: So what are these things you’re “allowed” to do?

FF: I am allowed to better arm the people.

S: Better arm the people?  How do you mean?

FF: Guns, knives, and more guns.  We’re a stronger society when everyone is armed.

MP:  This is where I start to lose my mind.  I can’t find any sense in this.

S: Relax, Mark.  Let’s see if Frank can help us understand.  Frank, a lot of people are fed up with mass shootings in the United States. It’s hard to see how more guns will make matters better.

FF: Just think if the teachers at Newtown were armed.  They could have pulled out their guns and shot the intruder.  End of story.

S: So more guns would have made it better?

FF: No doubt.  That’s why I authored a bill to allow concealed weapons in schools, churches, post offices, etc.

S:  So if you were in charge of solving traffic jams in large cities, you’d try to make sure MORE cars were added to the mix?

FF: (looking down at notes) Uh, guns don’t kill people, people do.

MP: You see! This is what I’m talking about.  He refuses to answer any direct questions.

FF: It’s an answer.

S:  More importantly, Frank, arming people in schools hasn’t actually stopped mass murder.  There was an armed guard at Columbine and certainly at Ft. Hood there were plenty of extra guns, but still many people died at the hands of a crazed gunman.

FF: Well that’s right.  This discussion should be about mental health, not gun laws.  If there were less crazy people around, we’d have fewer problems.

S: That may be true, but instead of deflecting the discussion toward mental health, which should be discussed in its own right, let’s talk more about availability of guns.   Do you think that had Adam Lanza not had access to a semi-automatic weapon that he would have been able to inflict the carnage that he did?

FF: Of course!  If crazy people want to kill you, they will.

S: So had he been armed with a knife, he would have been able to slaughter 27 people without anyone intervening?

FF: (looking down at notes) Knife owners should have the same rights to conceal weapons as gun owners.

MP: Sigh.  Wrong auto-response again, Frank.  Could you please answer the question?

FF: Are we supposed to ban guns and have the government confiscate them?

S: Isn’t that a bit of an extreme reaction to calls for limiting semi-automatic weapons and large capacity ammo magazines?

FF: The NRA says that we’re on a slippery slope.  If we take measures to ban semi-automatics, that pretty soon, all guns will be illegal.

S: But does that make sense?  Does limiting the possibility of mass murder…or at least the body count…automatically lead to complete weapons confiscation?

FF: That’s what the NRA says and if you’ve looked at my campaign finance documents, you know I feel the same way.

S: Ok, well answer this.  What do you think of cell phone use by teenage drivers?

FF: I think it’s wrong.  In fact I strongly advocated for a ban and we passed “Kelsey’s Law” which prohibits cell phone use by teens while driving.  It’s one of my proudest moments.  Less children will die because of what I did.

S: That’s great.  It seems to be a sensible law.  What exactly was the problem with teens and cell phones?

FF: Teens were texting and calling while driving and they got distracted.  This caused accidents.

S: So by the same logic as you’ve applied to guns, shouldn’t we mandate all teens to use cell phones while driving?

FF: That’s crazy.  Fewer cell phones equal less accidents.

S: But more guns equals LESS mass murders?

FF: (desperately searching his notes) Can you give me a minute?

MP: Why would you need a minute?  Either Kelsey’s Law is the right way to approach a problem or it isn’t.  Putting more guns into the system means more mass murders and if you could pull your eyes off those notes, Mr. Foster, you could see the sanity in what Socrates is saying.

FF: Mark, you keep trying to simplify complicated things.  What am I supposed to do?  If I suddenly start talking sense about gun laws, the NRA will cut me off.

MP: Why is that bad?  Can’t we all agree that the NRA is a single issue organization who would gladly accept more school massacres as long as guys are allowed to shoot at deer with semi-automatic weapons on game ranches?  It comes down to what a life is worth.  If NRA members had to take target practice with single shot weapons, would their lives be inconvenienced in any way?  I think you can look at them, Frank, hand them their money back and say they’re misguided.  I think you’d gain respect among your constituents.

FF: It all seems so simple to you, but you don’t get it.  Once you’re in the pockets of the party leadership and the lobbies there’s no getting out.

S: So there’s no place for logic, sanity, or compassion in Michigan politics?

FF: Those words don’t fly in Lansing and you know it.  It’s us versus them.  And right now we’re winning.

S: So the bill that you sponsored to allow concealed weapons in schools was a victory?

FF: Of course.  But the governor decided the heat was too much and he vetoed it.  Without Newtown, there could be concealed weapons in schools right now.

S: Why did the governor veto the bill?

FF: Apparently we forgot to give schools the right to ban guns if they wanted.

MP: Right! Guns could only be banned on private property.

FF: It was an oversight.

MP: By whom?  How could this be missed?

FF: We had a lot to do in a short amount of time.

MP: So you got sloppy? On something this important you got sloppy?

FF: I wouldn’t say that.  I’d say if Newtown wouldn’t have happened, no one would have noticed.  We got unlucky.  We should have won.

S: But for whom is this a victory?

FF: (looking at notes) The government wants to disarm citizens so it can take away our rights.

S: What makes you say this?

FF: Right here on line 27.

S: But, sir, what makes you BELIEVE it?

FF: Line 27.

MP: Sigh.  So you’re conceding your voice, your conscience, and the lives of more children the next time some psycho decides to cut loose in a school?

FF: (looking at notes) They’ll take my gun when they rip it from my cold dead hands.

S: I can see this is going to be more difficult than I thought.  So tell me what you think about arming teachers?

FF: If all teachers had guns, they could shoot intruders.  And just the threat of armed teachers would keep gunmen away from schools.

MP: But aren’t these the same people you were calling thugs during the Right-to-Work debacle?  You’re now going to arm the thugs?

FF: Why is this about teachers? Public school teachers are the enemy of a free society. The sooner the unions are out of schools, the sooner we’ll be able to save enough money that the governor needs for something else.

MP: What?  What does he need money for?

FF: I’m not privy to that information.  I am just supposed to vote against teachers.

S: Where were you educated?  Private school?

FF: No, at Petoskey High School.

S:  And there are union teachers at Petoskey High School?

FF: Well, yes, and some very good ones.

S: And yet you’re on a mission to rid the schools of these teachers?

FF: No, no, no.  Everyone keeps saying that.  I just want them to work for less, give up their benefits, and forfeit their retirement.   If they really cared about education they’d do that.

S: And do you care about education?

FF: Of course.

S: And have you forfeited your benefits, lowered your pay and forfeited your retirement?

FF: Of course not.  I’m not union.  I deserve these things.

MP: I need a break.  Would anyone like something to drink?

S: It might be time for my hemlock

FF: Bring me a beer…and one of those togas…if we’re going to party, let’s party!  No one is planning on cutting the lawn around here are they?

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