It was late 1987 or early 1988, and my boss at the time, then-U.S.-Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, had just arrived back in the state from Washington, D.C., as he did roughly every two weeks. He was headed to north central South Dakota for a series of face-to-face constituent meetings.
I was nervous and had repeatedly contacted the staff person who would accompany Daschle on the trip, to make sure everything would go as smoothly as possible. My anxiety was due to the fact that he had recently taken a couple of controversial votes in the eyes of many of the people who lived in that region of South Dakota, a state that has never been overly embracing of Democrats.
But this region of the state was particularly tough for Democrats, even for South Dakota. As a longtime Democrat activist from the area told me once, “you could run Jesus Christ on the Democrat side of the ballot against a dog on the Republican side, and Jesus wouldn’t pull over 30 percent of the vote.” His analysis wasn’t far off.
Still, Daschle and the aide drove to the region to attend the well-advertised listening meetings that anyone could attend. He did so because he made it a point of visiting every county in South Dakota every year, and because he knew that as an elected official he had to.
He survived the meeting, although he was vocally taken to task. Later, when I asked him why he would hold these meetings when we could easily schedule less public visits, he looked at me, somewhat confused by the suggestion, then spoke almost as a parent does to a child — half lecturing, half nurturing. “If you face your constituents and intelligently explain to them what you did and why, the majority, while they may not love you for your vote, will nonetheless respect you for it.”
He was right, and his constituents did respect him, not always for his votes, but for his willingness to face them no matter what. He ended up being elected to two additional terms, losing his bid for a fourth term by a mere 2 percent of the votes cast.
Minnesota Reps. Erik Paulsen and Jason Lewis could learn a lot from former Sen. Daschle’s political courage. No matter how you frame it, relying on hand-selected constituent meetings, muted telephone conference calls and the like is simply hiding from your constituents. These substitutes for open town-hall meetings are no replacement for one of the chief pillars of a representative democracy — having meaningful conversations with your constituents, no matter their political affiliation or philosophical leanings.
Being an elected official isn’t about comfort and easy pay. It’s a hard job — harder than most people believe — and that check you cash is being paid for by the people you work for, not some nameless official within the U.S. Department of Treasury. They expect not only to hear from you; they expect you to listen to them. That’s the price you pay for their votes and your paycheck.
As modern-day politicians, you are surrounded by controversy and a split constituency. That’s due, in large part, to the polarized system that you and other elected officials have helped create and perpetuate. But that doesn’t mean you have the right to shut off the spigot of public input even if that input makes you feel uncomfortable politically or otherwise.
If you have an intelligent answer for the votes and actions you have taken, the majority of your constituents will respect you. And if you don’t have an intelligent, logical explanation for those votes and actions, you should reconsider what you are doing and why you chose to run for office.
If as elected officials you truly believe in a representative, participatory democracy — the core fibers of this nation’s founding and history — then you need to go out there and face your constituents, no matter the consequence. If you are unwilling to do so, then you believe in something far different and far more dangerous than having a constituent stand up and disagree with you at a public meeting.
Steve Kinsella served as U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle’s South Dakota political director and then later as his press secretary in Washington, D.C. He also served as the press secretary to the U.S. secretary of agriculture. He has lived for more than 20 years in St. Paul, where he works as a communications consultant.