On Saturday U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) spoke at Podcamp East in Wilmington, Del. The fact that he is one of the few elected members of Congress that not only “has” social media but uses it made him the perfect candidate to talk to a completely engaged and social audience about the use of social media in the political and government sphere.
I was glad for our little niche of the world that a U.S. Senator thought it important enough to show up at a social media and technology event. But honestly, and mostly because of the polarization of the media over the last two decades, I had become quite ambivalent to politics. Still, I was fascinated to hear the Senator’s thoughts on social, SOPA and other issues. I was also raised to respect the office, if not the person, and when an elected official is nearby, I feel a sense of obligation to pay attention.
Details aside, I noticed several things about Senator Coons that led me to believe he is the elected embodiment of what social media is about. He respectfully acknowledged that many members of his opposing party were genuinely interested in compromise and progress, that some members of his own party were more focused on playing party politics than representing their constituents, that there’s a lot of game-playing that goes on in Washington he doesn’t subscribe to and that ultimately, he is answerable to the people of Delaware.
He said on several occasions something along the lines of, “No offense, but I prioritize communications with Delawareans. They’re who hired me.”
He also told two stories that exposed some true fabric — social fabric — of his character. While joining Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, on a talk show and having the host try to polarize the conversation, Coons responded with, “We’re not here to play politics. We’re here to talk about the legislation we’re co-sponsoring.” Other Senators were apparently shocked he didn’t just join in the us-vs-them banter.
A second story he told was similar. He serves as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs. When discussing his term with other Senators, he reported some of them asked when he was going to lobby to move to chair the committee for Asia or Europe, which bring with them more attractive travel opportunities. Coons’s response was, “I took this chairmanship because I wanted it. I’m not lobbying for another role. I have a vested interest in our relationship with Africa.”
Genuine. Transparent. Constituent-Focused.
When it came time to ask questions of the Senator, I was honored to be given the mic for a moment. I told him I was from Kentucky, thus not in his constituency, but that I was one of those Americans who had become numb and disinterested in politics and Washington because of the polarization of the arguments, party politics and fighting that seems to be all we see from our television news outlets. So I asked why people like me should even have faith in government. Is there hope for compromise, for leadership, for government versus politics? Why should I have hope?
His answer was honest and forthcoming. He recounted the admission that some members of both parties are unfortunately more interested in playing the political game than finding platforms we can agree and move forward upon. He explained his relationship with Rubio, how he reached out after reading the Senator’s book and looked for common ground for the two to build bi-partisan legislation around and how there were, in fact, Senators and Congressmen and women who were working hard for their constituents and meeting half way on issues to push progress through in Washington.
He ended by saying that giving up on electoral politics is giving up on America.
To borrow a phrase from Aaron Marshall, Senator Coons kicked my ass and made me like it. He didn’t say it in a condescending tone or as if he were shaking a shameful finger at me. He was simply reminding me that the process is what makes our country work. Is it flawed? Sure. Do we need to clean house and get more Senators like Coons (not Democrats, necessarily, but ones that will be more genuine in their role) in office? Yes. But giving up on Washington because of the way it’s portrayed on Fox News or CNN, or because certain Congressional leaders are more interested in attacking the President or his opponent that doing the job they were elected to perform is giving up on our country.
Thank you for the kick in the pants, Senator Coons. And thank you for making me believe in my government again.
And if you’d like to see how the Senator uses social media most effectively, in my opinion, you can check him out on Twitter or see the videos he records on his train commutes to Washington answering constituent questions.