Beyond Open Door

This is a repost of a blog post I wrote back in 2016 for Emerge California and that it looks like has been recently re-organized off of the blog.

The elected officials I most admire constantly talk to their constituents. They talk to them on Twitter, on the street, at community meetings run by others and at neighborhood gatherings they pull together themselves. Their constant openness takes energy. Sometimes, it can confuse constituents who aren’t used to access, as U.S. Senator Booker (D-NJ) found a few years ago when a resident of Ireland reached out to him to for help filling a ditch:

Before I came back home to California after 7 years of school and advocacy work on the East Coast, I spent a year in Seattle. I started out volunteering and then working for local campaigns. I was constantly talking. Everywhere I went, I chatted with people in my community, breathing in their concerns and breathing out potential solutions. After the election, I had the opportunity to staff the chair of the state House budget committee during a constitutional crisis centered around K-12 education funding.

One day, during my first few weeks in Olympia, I overheard my boss was going to give a speech that evening. I asked if I could attend. I was told not to by a trusted caucus staff member. She said I couldn’t go to community events during the legislative session, because they might benefit the Representative in his next election. With long experience in the capital, she was concerned that having a state-paid staff member at the event would be an improper use of tax-payer funded time. Everyone I talked to agreed: as staffers, we should stay in our cubicles.

A week or so later, I floated the idea of knocking some doors in district to ask constituents how they felt about a bill; I was new to area and wanted to help inform my boss’s work. The senior caucus staff let me know that was not allowed because reaching out to constituents was too close to campaigning. I later discovered legislative aides and assistants were also not allowed to use Twitter to respond to constituents who tweeted at the Representatives, because most elected officials in Washington state only have one account for their campaigns and do not maintain a separate one for official work. 

The caucus staff did incredible work within these rules, using caucus resources to get information out to constituents and report back to legislators. I could understand how the caucus got to each policy and would never want to cross official and campaign work. But the practical result of the rules was that we were distanced from constituents. Campaigns got all the innovative grassroots tactics while elected officials were left to limp along using the tools of bureaucracy to achieve the ends of representative democracy.

It was like leaders in elected office had to hold their breaths between campaigns, not meeting constituents where they lived but waiting for them to make an appointment. The good legislators I came to know always had an open door policy for constituents. But to take advantage of that policy, a constituent had to take time off work, find a car to drive or time to meander on the bus, and find the office before she could walk though that door and be heard. That is a missed opportunity.

We can do better in California as leaders in Emerge. We can decide to meet our constituents where they are—not just at community meetings that require tickets or nice clothes, not just at functionally-closed-door club meetings, but at their front doors, on their commutes, walking in our parks, on the phone and online. Our communities cannot hold their breaths between campaigns, hoping to be heard only in the months leading up to an election.

I answered most in-coming calls to the office during my time in Olympia and I found the people who felt most secure making their views known were those who had met the Representative in person. I got calls from constituents who recalled that he had knocked on their doors last year, 5 years ago, 10 years ago. People remembered and that memory made them feel like their he was a person who was responsible to them. Not in an abstract, civic-lesson kind of way, but as a reliable figure in their lives. That was exactly the kind of relationship I wanted for all residents to have.

As part of the Emerge 2016 class, we get to decide what kind of elected officials we want to be for our future constituents. Do we want to be welcoming, present in their lives, and truly accessible? Or do we want to sit back in our chairs and wait to see who can get through our doors? 

I vote we get out and breathe the shared air of our communities, not just to get elected, but to stay connected to the people we wish to serve.

Get in touch

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