(Poster from the Lex-Rock Women’s Rights Rally on Randolph Street, March, 2017.)
On a hot and dusty Friday afternoon, I head to a VFW about two miles from my home. It’s not yet 4:30, and the parking lot is full. I park, enter the low-slung building, hand my registration form to the woman at the door, and receive my yellow sticker, which I am supposed to wear on my clothing. The yellow sticker serves to distinguish me from my green-sticker neighbors, whom I know well and respect. Green-sticker attendees live in Rockbridge County, and we yellow-sticker folks are from the City of Lexington. For this particular townhall meeting, all green sticker questions must be exhausted before a yellow sticker question is permitted.
I walk past a policeman, whose gun peeks out of the holster and who stands throughout the meeting. As I sit at a table, placing my notebook and pen in front of me, I notice a cameraman and assume he’s from the local news, from WDBJ or WSLS, covering the visit to the Sixth District of our representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, Ben Cline (*check out Gene Zitver’s ClineWatch site). The folding chairs placed in rows are mostly full, with a few of us late arrivals scattered at the back tables, plastic affairs likely impervious to late-night spills or multiple moves.
Representative Cline begins his remarks by saying that Washington, D.C., is “the most dysfunctional place on earth.” He insists that his work in Washington is to represent his constituents, “the constituents of the 6th District,” he adds with an air of implied complicity with us all. At the same time, he makes sure we understand that green-sticker constituents will have priority for questions. The meeting was to end at 6:00. I left at 5:55, with a number of green-sticker folks still waiting to ask their questions. While the system is set up to prioritize questions from the people who live in the area where the townhall is held, and that seems perfectly reasonable, it also seems to have a weird marginalizing or isolating effect on attendees and to be strangely unaware of the semiotic weight of telling people to wear yellow stickers.
Representative Cline proceeds to speak for a full 45 minutes. While he laments giving up his local law firm, he is excited to be a big boy in Washington. He expresses glee that his new office building is close to a Dunkin’ Donuts (surely, any true man of the people would delight in this, right?). He talks about the 6th District and how the district requires him to focus on education and labor. His remarks on education include only higher education concerns; nothing at all is stated about the excellent (in some cases) or utterly failing (in other cases) public schools up and down the Shenandoah Valley. Our county middle school has recently reported significant data on achievement gaps and alarming statistics on chronic absenteeism. These statistics seem to carry over to our county high school. Ben doesn’t address any local issues surrounding public education because he prefers to talk about charter schools, about removing students from the environment rather than fixing the environment.
The filibuster continues. I say “filibuster” because Ben is not surprising us with any new expressions of concern or desires to legislate for the common good. Instead, he talks about developing relationships with other men in the House. He reminds us that he begins the day with the pledge and a prayer. He boasts that he is the only freshman Republican in the House to have a bill signed into law. We learn that the bill modifies membership provisions for the American Legion so that more veterans can enjoy the social benefits of belonging. While this is well and good, I’m longing to hear about substantive movement (or at least plans to move) on the big issues of education, health care, environmental protections, and gun reform. Ben does not mention any of these issues. He does not discuss them until he is asked directly about them in the Q&A stage. Instead, Ben talks about human beings as “illegals” and discusses who does and does not “belong” in this country.
When Representative Cline chooses to become more representative and opens up the townhall to Q&A, my green-stickered friends start a series of excellent questions. They broach healthcare and the high cost of pharmaceuticals, ERA and the need for increased constitutional protections for women, real bipartisanship versus the use of inflammatory rhetoric, Ben’s A+ rating from the NRA and its implications for how he will represent 6th District residents keenly interested in common sense gun reform. For the issues Ben does not want to address (like healthcare), Ben simply says, “It’s a broken system.” For the issues on which he disagrees with the direction of the question, Ben takes refuge in his favorite, “We just need to enforce current laws.” How is this neglect (e.g. healthcare) and/or active, obstinate wrongheadedness (e.g. common sense gun reform) working for Ben’s constituents? How is it working for the state of Virginia, or indeed for the United States? Not well, I’d say. And cherrypicking minor bits of minor legislation is just an insult. Let’s remember the Newsweek headline from last year that said, “More Children Have Been Killed by Guns Since Sandy Hook than U.S. Soldiers in Combat since 9/11.” Our pro-life representative seems a bit less pro-life in this context, doesn’t he? Ben preens as he announces that the cameraman in the room is from a Swiss television station interested in the United States and the NRA. Nice A+ NRA photo op, Ben, at the expense of victim after victim of gun violence in the U.S.
For those who don’t regularly track the politics of the Virginia 6th, in January of this year, Ben Cline replaced Bob Goodlatte (*see this blog post and this one) as the district’s representative to the House. Many of us in the 6th criticized Goodlatte’s utter absence up and down the western side of Virginia. Friends and neighbors far more generous than I credit Ben Cline with at least showing up—scheduling town halls and visiting with residents of the 6th. Of course, showing up is the right thing to do, but staging the town hall in the same way, time after time, locality after locality, without opening up ever to real dialogue to me creates the same absence established by Bob Goodlatte, only worse. It is an abuse of sincere people who desire to speak up against injustice and ask in the kindest of ways for the most appropriate changes. It is a violation of the good will of good people, and that is what sickens me about both Cline and the GOP.
I have written many blog posts that express my confusion and sadness at the silence of so many Republican voters before the utter debasement of humankind and the earth we inhabit. I still feel that way. Cline represents the rotten core of the GOP. He seems uninterested in learning new things, unwilling to hear dissent, all too comfortable in his own contradictory stances, cruel in his desire to legislate against others’ humanity, and laughably proud of the tiniest of inconsequential legislative victories. Does Ben Cline deserve the time and energies of thoughtful citizens, people concerned about escalating costs of lifesaving pharmaceuticals, increased vulnerability to guns gone wild, and the lack of women’s rights in the face of domestic violence and major reproductive challenges? These thoughtful citizens wonder about the Ben Cline who presents himself as the aw-shucks reasonable guy at a town hall meeting he orchestrates and how he seems so different from the Ben Cline campaign guy who uses inflammatory rhetoric at election events and rallies. It is all one and the same Ben Cline, the one who wants to get elected only to get elected again.
Let me say something more here. Even if the political parties were reversed, and I were a Republican watching a Democratic representative yank me around, I’d be pissed. I do not understand power for power’s sake, public presentation without real conversation, or hyper-staged events that in the end feel like the meaningless parades of the Castro era or the trumped-up falsity of the 2017 United States presidential inauguration. I just don’t get it. From a humanitarian standpoint, I am relieved that more Republican Congresspeople are choosing not to run for re-election because they don’t see a place for themselves in the party. As a freshman in the House, Representative Cline runs counter to this impulse, seeking power for power’s sake, constituents be damned.
In his town halls, Ben emphasizes “civility,” but what does this mean in a context where every element is controlled by the powerful guy in the suit? Ben gets to report that he holds townhalls and listens to his constituents, when actually he grandstands, offers banal information, tightly controls who can ask questions (and when and how), and replies with sometimes faulty, often conflicting stances.
Ben is the Groping Old Party, taking advantage of the time and good intentions of sincere constituents who want the best for the most people.
(My yellow sticker from the town hall meeting. One yellow sticker is good for 90 minutes of being silenced.)