The key word is “serve.” Most Americans would agree our nation faces a staggering list of monumental challenges - hunger, climate change, racial injustice, health care, the economy and more. Elected officials who are truly in office to serve must make addressing these issues their priority. And the only way to do that is working across the aisle. Unfortunately, we are in a hyper-partisan era where we are more likely to see insults than answers.
In my years in Congress, I’ve found the key to working alongside members with different views is to build personal relationships. For me, this often started in the Congressional chapel, where we could get to know each other in a private setting, talk about our families and pray together. That’s how I got to know Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia. We developed a friendship and a solid working relationship. Together, we helped pass a bill to stop the trade in blood diamonds, legislation that saved countless lives. This success only happened because we spent time building our personal relationship.
We know we can solve problems and improve life for everyday Americans when we choose to build bridges instead of walls. Despite this, we see increasing division and animosity. How do we reverse this trend?
One way to start is to spend time away from the media. Traveling together was always an opportunity to get to know each other personally, to build those relationships. The division these days is so bad when new members show up for orientation, there are separate buses for democrats and republicans. How can we build working relationships when we can’t even spend a few minutes together on a bus?
Beyond that, I would love to see a civic group sponsor a weekend retreat with local elected officials so they have the opportunities to see the person instead of the political party.
It’s also time to get some new young leaders in office, leaders who are focused on the people they serve rather than how many hits they get on social media. One positive development in Congress is the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan committee where members are committed to working together. Their website doesn’t even list their party affiliation. The group includes 18 freshmen members inspiring hope that a new generation of congressional leaders are welcoming collaboration.
“We solve problems through respecting one another, genuinely listening, and working toward a common good. My stance has always been: I will work with anyone, anywhere to deliver results for the people,” said caucus member Emilia Strong Sykes of Ohio.
This is exactly what we should be encouraging.
It’s not just up to the elected officials. The voters have a vital role to play as well. If we do not begin demanding a higher standard from our representatives, generations to come will be raised to see this as status quo. What example are we setting for our future leaders?
When our representatives behave in a way we wouldn’t allow our children, or our bosses or ourselves to behave, speak up! Tell them this isn’t acceptable, call their office and call them out on their social media. And take the time to thank them when they work in a collaborative manner.
I believe we deserve a higher caliber of character representing us at the local and national level. It’s embarrassing to know others see these individuals as our best representatives, and it’s even more concerning to know our youth see this as acceptable. If we don’t speak up now, it will continue to get worse. Things won’t change overnight, but what we do today sets the standard for tomorrow.
It’s time to demand better.
Tony Hall represented Dayton in Congress for 22 years and is the founder of the Hall Hunger Initiative, a local food justice project.