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Note to readers: Congressman Ackerman's last day in Congress was Jan. 2.
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ROSLYN HEIGHTS, N.Y. -- It's my last full day as a member of the Congress, and I have it all under control -- I think.
I'm fulfilled and grateful to have been able to pay back a small portion for the good things that happened to me in life. To retire after 35 years in elected office, with no formulated plan as yet but goofing off with my grandchildren, seems right for the moment. I'm happy to play the rest of life by ear.
I had hoped to keep my emotions in check, but my emotions have a mind of their own. This week I cast my last vote -- "to extend certain tax relief provisions enacted in 2001 and 2003" and "for other purposes" -- of what I estimate have been more than 16,000 votes cast in my career.
Coming from an immigrant family of Polish Jews with peasant origins, sheltered by decent, safe public housing (the Kingsborough Houses in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the Pomonok Houses in Flushing, Queens), receiving great medical care when I needed it thanks to a generous society (and charity hospitals such as St. Giles the Cripple and St. Luke's), educated by wonderful public schools, with a priceless, cost-free degree from Queens College, I have lived my entire life knowing that I owed somebody something.
And I fancied myself becoming somebody, and paying it forward. I taught in public schools. I helped start a business. (Yes, liberals can be job creators and believe in capitalism.) As a state senator and then a congressman, I've had the privilege of trying to do good things for people to whom I owe so much and can never fully repay. I've personally demanded that tyrants let their people go. I've tried to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, protect the elderly and infirm, and defend the needy from the aggressively greedy. I've led a blessed life. What a kick for a kid from the projects.
I entered government service at a time when America was becoming more and more diverse. Some neighborhoods in my hometown, New York City, were changing so rapidly, welcoming people with so much hope and talent and pride, one just had to know that so much promise could only make a great nation better.
I remember from my childhood a wooden jigsaw puzzle map of what were then the 48 states. The puzzle wasn't complete unless one could fit all the pieces together to make one country, our country. But the House of Representatives has 435 separate pieces, each piece represented by a person speaking for communities with different ideas and approaches.
On many occasions, we made it all fit together. Compromise was not heresy. Your opponent was not your enemy. The debate was choosing between better or worse policies, not good or evil ideologies. Of course, between good and bad there is a void of gray.
Two months shy of 30 years in the House, I leave a chamber in which we challenge one another's legitimacy, not one another's ideas. When I arrived in Washington, in 1983, Ronald Reagan was president, the Republicans controlled the Senate, and the Democrats were the majority in the House. Today the situation is reversed: Barack Obama is about to be sworn in for a second term, the Democrats control the Senate and the Republicans are in the majority in the House.
What has changed is the disappearance of the spirit of cooperation and shared sacrifice that, only three decades ago, could bring political opponents together. I came at a time of great hope and leave at a time when finding a middle path has become a much greater challenge.
My last votes capped off a chapter of a storybook life I couldn't have dreamed up: The fiscal compromise approved by the House, with the support of nearly all Democrats and a minority of Republicans, staved off what would have been devastating tax-rate increases for nearly all but the wealthiest American households.__________
U.S. Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, a Democrat, represented parts of Queens and Long Island. He servied in Congress since 1983.