Civic Engagement, Part 2

 Parks and Rec is surprisingly accurate when it comes to town hall meetings.

After some general housekeeping and band director-quality lame jokes (“…we’re all so glad you could make it to this town hall here in the best named city in America – Sherman Oaks!”) the Congressman’s staff started drawing raffle tickets out of a bucket to pick the lucky few who would get to ask a question.

They drew several times throughout the meeting and my number never came up (although the two numbers directly before mine did, and yes, that made me cry inside), so instead I settled in and glumly watched the line of wrinkled, hunched, foul smelling constituents waiting at the microphone, hoping that one of them had been following the news and would bring up the issue I was concerned with.

The bad news is that nobody pressed the Congressman on the fact that he had voted for a bill written by Citigroup lobbyists that essentially promised bailouts to investment banks that make risky bets. The good news is that the Congressman’s constituents held his feet to the fire on important issues like how expensive retirement homes on Ventura Boulevard are, why his healthcare is exempted from Obamacare (it isn’t), and the tyranny of noisy aircraft landing at Van Nuys Airport.

While Congressman Sherman may not be the most active legislator, nor a particularly competent Wall Street watchdog, he’s really good at graciously answering questions put to him by crazy people. Most of the issues that people brought up to him were either nonexistent or beyond his control, but he still did a very good job of not sounding condescending when he explained to a short fat man in a sport coat that there was nothing he could do to help him with local zoning issues.

In several of his answers, the Congressman fell back on some pre prepared talking points designed to please a room full of Southern California Democrats – digs at “my friends across the aisle in the Republican Party”, the announcement that he would be cosponsoring a bill with Senator Bernie Sanders to require GMO labeling,* and a number of references to how he wants to, “hold Wall Street accountable.”

*How to know you live in a liberal district: When he said ‘Bernie Sanders’ the entire crowd murmured in hushed awe as though he’d said, “My personal friend Jon Stewart.”

Of course, the Congressman isn’t holding Wall Street accountable, because as I mentioned he let Citigroup write their own regulatory legislation, which is a lot like letting a serial rapist write your company’s sexual harassment policy. I had in my hands enough documents to demolish all of his talking points, but without a winning raffle card I couldn’t utilize any of the information.

Sure, I could’ve stood up and started yelling at him, but no matter how right I was, and no matter how well sourced my documents were, as soon as you start yelling at a member of Congress and waving supposedly incriminating paperwork around you start to look like a crackpot conspiracy theorist, and all the facts in the world won’t change that. My righteous civic virtue had been dealt a nasty case of whiskey dick.

I held out hope that I could maybe get a chance to speak with him afterward – it wouldn’t be quite the same as a public shaming in front of everyone at the town hall meeting, but at the very least I wanted him to know that somebody out there was keeping track of his votes. Unfortunately, the second the meeting drew to a close 25 old people who hadn’t been called up to ask questions jumped out of their seats and rushed the Congressman as fast as their decaying bodies would let them.

I hung back as they formed a tight knot around him, both due to crowd anxiety and because I figured that if one of them was going to assassinate him they would probably do it then and I wanted to stay out of the crossfire. In spite of all the anger I’d felt toward the guy over the past few weeks, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him as he tried to be polite to this mob of crazy, cranky old people clamoring for his attention.

“Congressman!” A fat middle aged Chinese-American man hollered, holding out a business card in a chubby hand. “I went to college at one of the top schools in China – if you need advice on China policy I’d love it if you’d give me a call. Can I get a picture with you?”

Congressman Sherman took the card. “Sure, in just a minute here-”

At this point an angry old man in a leg brace stepped up to him, wagging his finger. “I’ve called your office six times and I never got a call back!”

As the Congressman and his staff tried to defuse this moment, the China expert handed his camera to a nearby geriatric, stood beside the Congressman, and smiled. I saw the resulting picture on the camera’s viewscreen – a blurry shot of the China expert with a dorky grin standing next to Congressman Sherman, who was facing away from him and arguing with leg brace man.

The China expert took the camera back, looked at the image, and, seemingly satisfied with the proof that he had been in the general vicinity of a Congressman, departed with a smile on his face. That picture of him and the back of a low ranking lawmaker’s head would no doubt wind up proudly displayed on his Facebook page, and that made me sad.

The knot of old, deluded people followed the Congressman as he worked his way out of the elementary school and down the street toward a waiting towncar. All along the way he was shaking hands and doing his best to placate the mob, but the second he got to the car he hopped in and shut the door as fast as he could without catching a wrinkled hand in it. To be honest, I couldn’t blame him.

I’ve never had anything resembling idealism about politics (save for a couple of hours in middle school when my Mom and I watched the season 2 finale of The West Wing) but up until yesterday I had been under the impression that if people like me kept an eye on their representatives’ voting records and challenged them at town hall meetings we could at least remind them that their constituents were paying attention. But it turns out that even that very limited goal isn’t possible.

Crazy people show up to town hall meetings in such impressive numbers that they pretty much dilute the effect of sane, well informed people with legitimate questions to ask. And there’s really nobody to get mad at about that. Nobody has time to take questions from 300 people, so picking questions by lottery is about the only fair way for the Congressman to hear from a sample of his base. The Man didn't stifle my voice on Sunday; everyday, common, regular American citizens did.

After all’s been said and done, I can really see the appeal of sports now. Sure, the stakes aren’t very high, but that’s kind of what makes it bearable. If your team loses, nothing else in your life will go to shit, and it definitely won’t leave you feeling depressed and hollow afterwards.

After two hours with the oldest, craziest people in California’s 30th district, I wanted nothing more than to just watch some ‘roided out overpaid celebrities tossing a ball around for awhile. 

Truman Capps has given some thought to calling the Congressman’s office, but that would be a lot like pissing in the ocean: Ultimately meaningless, and only really enjoyable while drunk.