In June 2012, I had the chance to visit my old stomping grounds in Washington, D.C. – our nation’s capital. It wasn’t the same.
When I graduated college in 1982, the only job I could get during a recessionary period was as office manager for a local state senate campaign in Cortland, New York, my hometown. It’s not that I wanted to be involved in politics – in fact I hated the thought. It’s just that I was living at home after college and my parents decided that I needed to do something with my life that was more than just visiting the bars on Main Street each night. We weren’t dollar-rich but I always considered myself family-rich. We had a wonderful extended family of Italian and Sicilian relatives and made the most of every precious gift we had. My sister, father and mother lived in a modest 1,015 square foot home that was immaculately kept by my Italian mother. As my Dad always said, “money doesn’t grow on trees so you’re going to have to go to work.”
We lost the state senate campaign where I was employed in the primary and Mario Cuomo beat Lew Lehrman for Governor of New York. It was Christmas Eve in 1982 and a winning Congressman-elect named Sherwood Boehlert asked me to join his staff in Washington, D.C. The offer was $13,000 a year. I had to make a decision within 72 hours, pack my bags, and be in the office in Washington by January 3rd as this was swearing-in day for the new Congress and I would be the receptionist for the new Congressman-elect. That date also was my Mother’s birthday.
I remember that day like it was yesterday. Mom and Dad dropped me off in Silver Spring, Maryland, at the home of a friend of Cortland County Treasurer Carl Edlund. Mom had worked for Mr. Edlund in the County Office for years helping him with bookkeeping. We took the Metro Train from Silver Spring to Union Station and as we ascended the escalator, there in all its glory was the United States Capitol. I swore on that day that every time I visited the Capitol I would reflect on its majesty and symbolism. This is the people’s House where our elected Members of Congress meet to solve problems. It is not just an architectural marvel – it is a place our elected representatives meet to do the people’s business.
Fast Forward from 1982 to 2012 – 30 years sure makes a difference. I’ve seen inaugurations (both Bush 41 & 43) and participated in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 inaugural festivities when it was below zero and the inauguration had to be moved inside to the U.S. Capitol due to frigid conditions. I worked alongside U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and did a short stint on new market development for Wal-Mart. I helped to appoint the first disabled member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, met and married a Californian and got the heck out of Washington. I lost Dad to lymphoma right after 9-11 and Mom to pancreatic cancer in 2011.
I was back this particular week advocating for a bill in the U.S. House that would create a strategic plan to fight pancreatic cancer. Like my first trip to Washington, it wasn’t part of my life plan, but it’s where God sent me. This time I brought my teenage son with me and shared experiences with him while introducing him to Members of Congress from New York (my home state by birth) and California (my current home state).
Reflecting on what is different is as simple as evaluating the mood of our country. When I worked for Ronald Reagan at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and on his 1984 campaign, I woke up every day and thought about how to build a greater country and make things better for families and communities. We cared about self-sufficiency and solving problems. We tried to do what was right regardless of the political consequences because it was the right thing to do.
Today, our nation’s capital is plagued with divisiveness and bickering among both Houses of Congress and the President. People are struggling in bad economic conditions. Regulators and government bureaucrats continue their punitive way of life against hard working innovators and small businessmen and women. People want good jobs and a better life for their children than the life they grew up in. Some say they should depend on government solutions while others say they should pull up their bootstraps and get a good job.
What’s different now is that I am here – not there. I see things clearer having been on the inside. I am a working wife and mother and I do things on my own now – without a government pension, paid federal health care, and other fringe benefits. My loving husband is a start-up entrepreneur and we’re looking to leave my son with a better life just as my parents wanted for us.
Because I was “Inside the Beltway” of Washington politics for 15 of the last 30 years, I’m in a position to evaluate things from the real life perspective of “what they think” inside the beltway and “what we know to be true” in the 50 other states. James Carville once said “it’s the economy, stupid”. I agree.
I am a Beltway refugee and this is the beginning of my story.