Democracy

January 27th, 2020

Last Friday our congressman came to town and held a one-hour-long listening session at the Oak Creek City Hall. I attended the meeting. I found it curious that the gathering was called a “listening session”. At times, it was hard to tell if anybody was actually listening.

Everybody in that room had come to talk, including Representative Steil. Congressman Steil is a first term Republican. He was elected in 2018 to take over Paul Ryan’s old district. I have had a bit of face-to-face interaction with the congressman during the past year. Steil is young and ambitious. His whole goal at this point is to get re-elected. He is in favor of veterans, puppy dogs, and apple pie. Steil does his best to steer away from controversial issues. He is perhaps wise to do so.

Although I disagree with the congressman on many issues, I still like him. Of course, liking him does not mean that I would ever vote for him, but he seems to be a decent guy. He tried to set the tone for the meeting by saying,

“Things in Wisconsin are a lot different than in Washington. People here know how to ‘disagree without being disagreeable’. Right?”

I’m not so sure about that. The guy in the front row with the MAGA cap made me a little concerned about how this session was going to go. People who show up for listening sessions or town hall meetings tend to be very passionate about a particular topic, otherwise they wouldn’t bother to show up. The challenge for Steil was to get these people to participate in the discussion without it turning into a free-for-all. I could tell that it was going to be a struggle.

People who show up for a listening session also tend to be old. I am certain that many of the folks in the room were retired, like me. The meeting was held in the middle of a workday, so who else would have been able to be there? The demographics tend to skew the discussion. The people at the meeting were much more interested in Medicare, Social Security, and the price of prescription drugs than members of the general public. It would have been interesting to have had more young people in attendance.

Steil spent the first twenty minutes of the hour long session talking about himself. He’s running for re-election, and it was his chance to blow his own horn. He spoke about his successes at bipartisan legislation. Most of the bills he supported involved safe topics. We didn’t hear about any bold initiatives. As a freshman congressman from a swing district, he won’t try anything risky. He kept saying that it will be difficult to pass any bills until after the November election. That means nothing will get done until next year.

Steil opened the floor for questions and comments. The congressman called on people to speak. There were probably forty or more people at the meeting, each of them wanting to give an opinion. That included me. With the time remaining, it was unlikely that more than ten persons would be able to say anything. The atmosphere was tense.

The first person called by Steil wanted to talk about climate change. The citizen cited studies by the Pentagon indicating that climate change was a threat to the national security. When he was finished speaking, Steil said,

“I believe that climate change is real.”

That blew me away. I was unaware that there were any Republicans that accepted climate change.

Then the conversation got murky. When asked about what we should do about climate change, the congressman fell back on saying that technological innovations driven by the free market would fix it all. He also stated that the United States should not make efforts to curb emissions until the other polluters (e.g. India and China) did the same. In short, Steil told us that the U.S. government should do nothing.

The conversations went back and forth. People raged and raved about student loan debt. Steil’s answer to the problem was that students ought to get through college in a shorter period of time, because then they would have less debt. Seriously, he said this.

One young man (there was a young man there) pushed Steil hard about his vote against the impeachment of Donald Trump. The congressman obviously wanted to avoid this discussion, but I think that Steil knew it was coming.

Steil said, “I analyzed the documents and I did not find an impeachable offense.”

End of story.

Honestly, what else would our representative have said? The man who asked the question already knew the answer. The questioner just wanted to make Steil squirm.

Later in the melee, an older gentleman asked Steil about the building of a new Post Office annex in Oak Creek. This new construction was very offensive to this citizen. The man was clearly upset, and he told Steil, in no uncertain terms, that the congressman had not done jack shit to prevent its development.

Steil was dumbfounded. Think for a moment: Steil needs to be concerned about various issues throughout southeastern Wisconsin. That is impossible, even for a man with people who work for him. The citizen who ripped on our elected official caught Steil off guard. Steil did not like that.

The congressman stammered. He had no good answers, but he promised to get back to his angry constituant. That didn’t really help. Steil momentarily looked clueless, and that is never a good thing for a politician.

The session ended with many issues unadressed. I think it is always like that.

I would never want Steil’s job. I could never do it. I admire him because he is at least trying to do the right thing. I find that to be very impressive.

This is what democracy looks like, and it truly a mess.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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