Sunday, April 18, 2010

Governance By The People: Who Are Our Peers?

When I was growing up in Oklahoma, our State Representative lived with his family a few blocks down the street from us, in a small frame house we skipped past on our way to the neighborhood grocery store. He was a teacher, community service coordinator, and even sometimes clerked in a grocery store during the summer when the legislature was not in session. Mama always campaigned for him and we grew up assuming that politicians were all ordinary, approachable people who lived like everyone else.

When George W Bush was Governor of Texas, we lived in the same middle-class neighborhood that Laura's parents lived in. During visits, Mr Bush took walks around our streets on his own, and neighborhood kids encountered him and chatted with him and took their pictures with him.

My son was excited to meet him - but he was just as excited the day he came home and told us he'd met "Scat McNatt, one of the old-time, original basketball players!" on his way home from school. They were both a part of our community, like the rest of the people who lived in town.

Whether we actually meet them personally or not, no matter what party they belong to, our representatives were - and should still be - our peers: local people, who live with those they represent. People in each region of the United States have the right to select neighbors to stand in for them in government. From School Board to Congress, no district is so large that those elected should be separated from their neighbors who entrusted them with public office.

Over the years of our history, the American people, under our Constitution and Bill of Rights, have continually, firmly eroded the old European and Asian rigid class systems, democratizing the meaning of "our peers" to include not just local landowners but also those who don't own property, to include all citizens who live in our community regardless of income and position and race and ethnicity and sex. It's miraculous and wonderful.

Our system is set up to recognize and respect that our peers need to be a part of our physical location. No matter where we were all born, living in the same place gives us the ability to share each others' lives. Our right as Americans, it's fundamental to the meaning of "representative democracy".

That need for our representatives to share a common location with those they represent was one of the singular points our founding fathers made. Even today, proximity is an essential, irreplaceable element in truly fair representation.

Our peers are people who are near in distance to us. People we can know and who can know us. People we can sit down to dinner with at a covered dish supper without having to pay for the privilege. People we can run into in Walmart, or at a local baseball game, or see mowing their yard if we drive past their house.

Our peers are those with whom we share weather and geography, with whom we share meals, with whom we share daily life and the means of life. People who do their shopping in our local malls and grocery stores. People who join the local Lions Club and PTA and Art Association and Volunteer Fire Department.

People who help out with bake sales and barbeques to raise money for a local citizen with cancer, or restoring a local landmark, or to fund Meals on Wheels. People who jog in our parks and cheer our parades and attend our 4th of July concerts.

People who had a life in common with us in our district before they ran for office, and who will have a life there again after they complete their service in public office.

People who come home, here, between sessions.

People who will remember who we are, and that they belong with us, during the time they are in office.

Approachable, interested in us. People who consider us their peers.

Those are our peers.

Who are the people on your school board, your City and County offices, in the State Capitol, in Washington? Do they live in your district, or just "maintain a residence" there?

Where do they go for the holidays?

Whom do they consider their peers?


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