Civic Engagement, Part 1

I know what you're thinking, and yes: He used to be an accountant. 

I spent two remarkably depressing hours of my Sunday sitting in an elementary school auditorium, the youngest person by a good 20 years in a standing-room-only crowd of rich older Jewish people and poor older Latinos. We were all there because we wanted to talk to our Congressman, Brad Sherman, who has been representing various chunks of the San Fernando Valley since Starship Troopers was in theaters. With the benefit of hindsight, this was a really shitty way to spend my Sunday afternoon.

With the exception of college football, I’ve never really been able to get into sports because I’ve never been invested in the outcomes. A team winning or losing a game doesn’t really mean anything outside of bragging rights for the fanbase, and bragging rights really only matter to me when I can rub it in everybody’s face that my college has the best football team ever.*

*I also do genuinely enjoy the pace and strategy of a football game, even if my comprehension of the rules is about the same as a stereotypical sitcom girlfriend’s.

Politics, on the other hand, has a year-round season, no time outs, fewer rules, and real, tangible stakes for victory or defeat. Maybe it’s just more relatable for me – I can’t really get invested in sexy, young overpaid narcissists who spend all of their time perfecting their physical abilities, but I’m totally onboard to follow frumpy, old overpaid narcissists who spend all their time yelling at each other on C-SPAN.

In politics, though, both teams suck pretty badly, so most of my analysis is extremely critical of just about every player on the field. Pro athletes may make enormous piles of money, but at least they work every day and in some cases knowingly give themselves brain damage for that paycheck – members of Congress get upwards of $170,000 a year to work three days a week, and most of them were already brain damaged to begin with.

So I was excited when I found out Brad Sherman was having a town hall, because I thought it would give me a chance to take my Congressman to task for his shitty governing – namely, the fact that he recently voted yes on a Wall Street regulatory bill that was pretty much written by Citigroup.

I spent most of last week preparing for the meeting – carefully rehearsing the wording of my speech and printing out New York Times articles and highlighting relevant sections in case he challenged my facts. I had imaginary debates with him in the privacy of my car, carefully selecting the most Aaron Sorkinesque retorts for the imaginary excuses he would make at the hypothetical town hall meeting I was attending in my mind.

“I didn’t vote for Citigroup, Congressman – in fact, none of us did! … You didn’t answer my question, sir! … You don’t like my tone? Well, I don’t like your job performance! … Don’t interrupt me, Congressman – those shenanigans might work in Washington, but they won’t fly here in the Valley!

Some people paint words on their chests and stand shirtless in the snow at football games; I get in my car and pretend I’m having a testy exchange with an old Jewish guy I’ve never met. Fandom is a weird thing.

On Sunday I showed up to the school half an hour early, my professionally highlighted notes tucked into an equally professional-looking blue folder, and signed in at a table by the door manned by some of the Congressman’s staffers.

“And did you want to ask the Congressman a question today?” One of them asked as I signed my name on the sheet.

“Yes,” I said, my eyes no doubt gleaming with the raw excitement of civic engagement. “Oh my, yes.”  

“Okay,” the staffer said, handing me a red paper raffle ticket. “We’ll be holding a drawing. If we call your number you can ask the Congressman your question.”

I stood there in the doorway numbly holding my raffle card, trying to wrap my mind around the idea that I might not even get a chance to ask my carefully researched, rehearsed, and highlighted question.

“Wait, um… That… That kind of fucks up my plan.” I muttered helplessly, but by then the staffer was helping a 90 year old man in a Hawaiian shirt pick up a pen to sign his name.

I figured that my odds of getting to ask my question were even worse if I just went home, so I made my way into the auditorium and took a seat near the front. Over time, the seats around me began to fill with old people who in some cases were as angry as they were senile (“Why isn’t there an American flag in this room!? Does that son of a bitch just think we won’t notice!?”) and I started eyeballing the nearest emergency exit on the off-chance somebody started shooting.

By the time every seat in the auditorium had been filled, the combined age in the room was hovering somewhere around 6000 years old. It was at this point that Congressman Sherman made his entrance.

My Congressman does not have the self assured swagger of former Ohio representative Dennis Kucinich, nor the rock hard ass of Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan. He seems like a nice man and I don’t doubt that he wants the best for America, but watching him shuffle up to the microphone in an ill-fitting grey suit I couldn’t help but get the impression that this guy was on the Congressional B-squad; the legislative equivalent of a 4th string placekicker. 

Not every Congressman can be Frank Underwood. 

Truman Capps has somehow managed to turn a story about attending a Congressional town hall meeting into a two part update, if for no other reason than to simulate for you just how boring the ordeal really was.