This is the time of year when walking to and from meetings in the Capitol becomes a wading exercise. Through pudding, it feels like sometimes. Hundreds of school kids, usually fourth-graders, are joined by hundreds of groups of adults whose organization is having their annual “Day at the Capitol,” and they are mixing with the dozens of regular denizens of the halls—lobbyists, regular tourists, regular visitors, about 200 people who are members of the legislature trying to get to this or that meeting, state agency folks who are keeping an eye on their budgets and legislation affecting what their agencies do, and lawmakers’ staff members who are trying to scurry (as much as one can scurry through crowd-pudding) hither and yon to meet the needs of their lawmaker bosses.
It is, at the most basic level, Democracy, the freedom of the people to interact in one form or another with those who shape the laws and policies under which they live or will live.
Every now and then when your observer was in the middle of those daily hallway swarms, he would step to the side and just watch. It’s really interesting, especially for someone who moves easily through those hallways and into and out of those rooms and offices every day to watch and listen to the folks who are there for one day a year—and maybe one day in their lifetimes—and see how they react to the things that are so familiar to the daily regulars. It’s probably uncomplimentary to say “watch the show” because that downplays the earnestness of the participants. To them, the lawmakers and others that the regulars see as other participants in a familiar system are something bigger. They get to go into the office of Senator Blurt or Representative Furd! And if they’re lucky, they might get to exchange a few words with that person and give him or her a brochure or a fact sheet about their organization or their cause. Otherwise, they leave the material with a kindly secretary or staff member who assures them the material will be passed along.
Days at the Capitol are opportunities for individual citizens to feel like important individual cogs in the great wheel of government. One of our system’s most cherished values is the ability of the citizen to speak to their representatives and these Days see the fulfillment of that value.
If you experience many of these events, you’ll see people clutching lists of legislators and their office numbers, walking—but not confidently striding—toward those offices to leave their message. If their lawmaker is there and has a few seconds to meet them personally, it’s a tremendous bonus. They go home and they can tell friends they actually met Blurt and Furd and, you know, they seemed like nice people.
Most of them ARE nice people. Why is it that when somebody says they met this or that prominent person, the first question is always, “What were they like?” And why is it some kind of revelation that prominent people are mostly just people?
Here’s a truth about Days at the Capitol, told as gently as we can tell it. Dozens of organizations haul hundreds of people to the Capitol every year to visit lawmakers’ offices and ask for their support or opposition to whatever issue that concerns the group. The groups are usually there for that one day and then they go home.
We’ve often thought that one drop-in visit by a constituent on one of these Days carries limited weight because there are so many of these drop-ins each session. It’s important for the constituents to feel good because they’ve been to the Capitol and they have spread the word on their issues. And they do feel good. But they need to do more than ride the bus in and ride the bus back home. They need to stay in touch, to go to local town hall meetings, to keep writing, to watch for their lawmaker in the grocery store or at the local basketball game or at the tire shop, and courteously get some face time to talk about the issues. That’s when the lawmaker is really real folks talking to other real folks. That’s where things can be discussed and understood. That’s where the citizen in the crowded hallway becomes most effective.
A Day at the Capitol is just one day. It’s good to remember there are 364 or 365 other days that have value, too.