“My name is Judy and I am a recovering public policy junkie.”
When I used to teach as part of the Center for Development and Disability’s Public Policy Institute each year, I shared my own journey and the situations that influenced my interest in political participation.
One of the major influences was my mother, who became a naturalized citizen when she was 31.
Her belief in the responsibility of citizens to participate conscientiously in government was a belief she held the rest of her life. She was active in the League of Women Voters for many years, and would discuss local, state and national issues with the family over dinner. I never questioned whether I would register to vote when I turned 21 (the voting age at that point in time). Making a conscious decision about citizenship is an important step, one we who are born in the United States take for granted – in more ways than one. This became crystal clear to me a few years ago when I received an invitation to attend a political coffee from a friend who was a new citizen. Her invitation stated, “I am taking my responsibilities of citizenship very seriously.”
My parents were Republicans their entire lives. After I moved to Albuquerque in 1994, I used to chuckle when I would check in with Mom to see if she needed a ride to the polls. She always declined. “I rely on Bill (her son-in-law), since he and I think the same on issues.”
During the summer of 1960, an election year, I worked in Los Angeles and stayed with my college roommate, Sue, and her family. While I rode the bus back and forth to my job near downtown, I read a book about the life of Richard Nixon, at that time Vice President. I presume Mom gave it to me to read. While Sue attended summer school classes each evening, I watched TV with her family. Sue’s father, a Professor of Business Administration at USC and a Democrat, was quite interested in the Democratic Convention being held in Los Angeles. His candidate of choice was Lyndon B. Johnson and he was passionate about his rationale.
While the convention itself took place at the Los Angeles Sports Arena and Coliseum, I learned the convention headquarters was at the Biltmore Hotel – a short bus ride from where I worked. I became so energized by the convention that I used my lunch hour one day to take the bus to the Biltmore and wander around hoping to see one of the candidates. While I didn’t have any celebrity sightings, I was definitely invigorated by wandering among the delegates at the hotel and pretending I belonged. While carefully thumbing through the dog-eared pages of my college scrapbook, I discovered a ticket to the acceptance speeches at the Coliseum.
I don’t have any recollection of attending. I’m sure that I kept the ticket as a souvenir of my budding interest in politics.
After listening to the convention speakers, I too embraced the Democratic Party. I recently told my friend Sue that it was her father that influenced my choice of political party. She was amazed and replied “I didn’t become a Democrat until I was 30.”
The following year I took a required Government course at the University of Redlands taught by Professor Dr. Robert L. Morlan. Besides really gaining a better understanding of how our government works, the main take-away I remember from the class was his belief that you should vote for the party rather than the candidate – “it is the party that sees that the platform will get carried out.”
I wonder what he would think today when each party seems fairly fractured in their beliefs.
While there has been a lot of fervor lately for an ‘outsider,’ I truly believe that our system of government was built upon the belief that people needed to work together to accomplish goals. From individuals I have known who have been elected to public office, ‘learning how to play with others’ has been one of the most important lessons they learned during their early months in office.
I registered to vote shortly after graduating from college when I turned 21 and saw the effects of succession when President Kennedy was assassinated and Vice President Johnson was sworn in as President. I voted in my first presidential election in 1964 – and, of course voted for President Lyndon B. Johnson.
I had firsthand experience learning how the results of Presidential elections can affect everyday life. When I started working at the San Bernardino County Welfare Department as a social worker, my caseload was around 100. I was expected to visit every recipient on my caseload every three months. In order to meet this expectation, my visits were so brief that I was not really able to help people make any changes in their lives. After President Johnson assumed the Presidency after President Kennedy’s assassination and received bi-partisan support for the Economic Opportunity Act and declared war on poverty. Within months, more funds flowed to the county level and my caseload dropped to 60.
When Ronald Reagan was elected Governor of California, I learned the impact of state politics. Two of his political beliefs seriously affected my work. His philosophy was that all welfare recipients should be required to work, with no understanding of the underlying dynamics that led many recipients to the welfare rolls. It was difficult to assist families that were put in untenable positions. His other policy required elderly people applying for public assistance to provide information about their adult children so the state could extract payment in the same manner they did with an absent parent. This was the most painful to watch. Elderly people usually decided to do without rather than have the state contact their children for support.
My next foray into the political process occurred ten years later shortly after becoming the Executive Director of The Arc-King County (Washington State) and learned that part of the ‘advocacy’ in my job description involved lobbying for the needs of people with developmental disabilities during the state legislative session. My first trip to Olympia was intimidating. Fortunately I had seasoned parent advocates to guide me. Then I discovered that the elected officials were ordinary people with a commitment to making the state better for their constituency.
I discovered that when parents of children and adults with disabilities could talk about how proposed legislation affected their individual lives, legislators were more likely to listen. As The Arc-King County grew and my job duties expanded, I was able to hire a dynamic parent to mobilize the King County Parent Coalition.
The first candidate I supported for public office was Gary Locke. As a state legislator he had been extremely supportive of legislation supporting people with disabilities. When he decided to run for King County Executive in 1993, I wanted to support him. I attended my first campaign event and made my first small financial contribution. Even though I had moved to New Mexico, I felt a sense of pride when he became Governor of Washington State and later Secretary of Commerce under President Obama and the first Ambassador to China.
Five months after moving to New Mexico, John Foley, Executive Director of the Arc of New Mexico, invited me to accompany him to Santa Fe at the start of the legislative session to meet with legislators. While western hats and bolo ties were a world apart from the conservative dress of the Washington State Legislature, the commitment to their constituencies with disabilities was just as keen.
During my first year at the Center for Development and Disabilities, I learned that Gail Chasey, a respected colleague, was running for the state legislature. I immediately got involved by attending meet and greet events and door-belling in her district. I have campaigned for a number of state candidates over the years.
Through my involvement with the Arc of New Mexico as a volunteer, I was able to attend the Governmental Affairs Seminar in Washington, D.C. to learn about national issues affecting people with disabilities and meet with New Mexico’s Congressional delegation and their staff people who focused on these issues. It was eye-opening to see the kind of support Legislators need to reach and stay abreast of the myriad of issues that arise during each legislative session.
As I approached retirement, I toyed around with the idea of running for a House seat in the New Mexico State Legislature. Since I lived in a district that was primarily Republican, I knew that my chances would be slim; however, the closer I got to retirement I realized that I wanted an opportunity to pursue other interests.
A friend and her husband trained to be poll observers in 2004. They split a fourteen hour shift at their assigned polling place – one that had been identified as a location where voters might have been given a hard time. They sat off to the side where voters were signing in to vote, but fortunately did not encounter any irregularities. My friend commented at the time that she was pleased about the potential of helping preserve the right to vote, and yet sad that it might be necessary. “The United States is usually the one that sends observers to new, or at risk democracies,” she lamented. “What does this mean about our democracy?”
I have thought a lot about her statement as Election Day 2016 approaches with claims of the election being rigged and untrained people being encouraged to show up to ‘monitor the elections.’ It is sobering.
In 2008, I had a hard time deciding whether I wanted to support former Senator Hillary Clinton who, if elected, would be the first woman President, or Senator Obama who, if elected, would be the first Black President. New Mexico’s primary was held in early February and I cast my ballot for Senator Obama.
After keeping a low profile during the early months of the election cycle, I decided I wanted to support then Senator Barak Obama in a concrete way. Two months before the election, I volunteered to make phone calls and showed up weekly at the local campaign office – and then volunteered to do some door-belling.
My sister, Chris and I were visiting relatives in the U.K. that year during the election. Many people we met expressed amazement that one of the candidates was black. “It could not happen here,” they commented. When we arrived at breakfast on the morning of Nov. 5, our cousin Carolyn said, “Well, you have a black president.” I was gratified to listen to the news coverage on BBC and see the positive endorsement of the election results.
Four years later I was in Ecuador at the time of the election. When I left the country, the two Presidential candidates were fairly even in the polls. My birding friends and I were staying at the Napo Wildlife Center. No one in our group had opted to pay for the limited Internet access and savored being away from civilization on the last few days before the election. However, by dinner time on November 5, all of us were on pins and needles hoping that President Obama had won a second term. As we arrived at the dining hall, we noticed the Canadian graduate student intern on her computer. She gladly checked the election results for us. When we learned that President Obama was re-elected, we all let out a cheer. Later during dinner, we were amused when a British birding group arrived for dinner and while they were eating learned the election results. They gave a rousing approval and we felt a sense of international unity.
This year I cast my ballot during the first few days that early voting was available at neighborhood locations.
Not only was I pleased at the convenience of voting at a time and location where I wouldn’t have to stand in a long line, the memory of Election Day 1984 still lingers. While waiting in line to vote after work in Redmond, WA, someone at the polls announced that election results tallied in other time zones had determined Ronald Reagan had received enough electoral votes to make him the winner. While I continued to wait to cast my vote for former Vice President Walter Mondale, who lost by a large margin, it was deflating to know that it really didn’t count.
2016 has soured me on the political process. Not only has the Presidential election had the characteristics of a soap opera, Political Action Committees from both sides of the aisle have heavily funded hate mail about the two candidates running for the State House of Representatives in my district. I considered volunteering to drive people to the polls, but decided not to because I didn’t want to give my cell phone number to any political group that would leave me open to being bombarded by phone calls in future elections. It feels sad.
I am not alone. A friend sent me a coloring book published by two friends of her son. The cover says it all.
Instead, I have channeled my public policy interests and writing skills to help protect habitat for birds in New Mexico. As a recovering public policy junkie, I am powerless to change the political behavior of others. All I can do is to change how I respond and am involved. I have not abandoned my passion or skills, but am rather practicing political participation in a manner that is healthy for me.