Three soon-to-be-former congressmen talk about how bad things have gotten.
Rep. Hansen Clarke arrived in D.C. on a wave of optimism, an unfamiliar thing in recent Detroit-area elections. He was the guy who beat Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a singularly ineffective Democrat whose son became a singularly crooked Detroit mayor. Clarke, the son of a Pakistani father and African-American mother who’d died when he was young, had state legislative experience, a degree in fine arts, and a sepia-toned biography. He primaried Kilpatrick in 2010, got to D.C.—and was promptly edged out of office by a Republican-led gerrymander of the city and suburbs.
- If you’re here to get political power and clout, there’s more of a premium on really bashing people, because that’s how you get attention. But if I went and bashed these people they’d say: The hell with you, man! You’re a freshman! You’re a Democrat! I’m not going to deal with you. I was through with politics before I ran for this job.
- The most success I had here was on the issue of relieving the debt of student-loan borrowers and their parents. I introduced a resolution that said while Congress is addressing the federal debt, it should address personal debt. Where we got the most feedback was on student loan debt, because no one else had talked about it. We put up a petition. We got 700,000 signatures. I took it to Valerie Jarrett. She took it to the president. He took executive action and reduced the amount of time borrowers have to pay their loans before they’re forgiven, reduced it from 25 years to 20 years. He also lowered the amount of payments a borrower would need to pay according to the income-based repayment program. Man, that was a great day. See, I was trained as an artist. You’re a journalist. Both professions that are essential to civilization, but we don’t get paid like investment bankers. We want people to enter these professions without worrying that they’ll never dig out of debt.
- The day I was sworn in I sat next to Gabrielle Giffords. When she was shot, I flew down to Tucson and—I’ll never forget this—I was told that her district director, Ron Barber, was with her in the hospital. I assumed he was there visiting the congresswoman. He was shot in the face, man! He was in intensive care! And now he has her seat, which is incredible. For me, gun violence, because I observed that as a child, it was an issue I wouldn’t deal with directly. I saw a man shot and killed when I was 9 years old. I realize still, after all these decades, I’m not freed from that incident. And I want to be freed from it. There is something there, with me. After I saw the man murdered, I forgot about it for 26 years. I’d have a dream, the only dream I’d ever have in color, where I’d see intestines on people’s lawns. But I’d never really deal with it.
- What got me to deal with that experience was, 10 years ago, I saw a young kid playing a video game, where he was shooting the heads off of people. I was so appalled. I thought: This is screwed up. So I introduced a bill in the state legislature to ban the sale of violent video games to minors. Even after the shootings in Connecticut, yes, we have to restore that assault weapons ban, we also [need to] restrict those magazines with up to 100 bullets. But we need to look at the media. We need to remove the stigma around mental health. My closest relative, my first cousin, died because she lost her job and turned to drinking and prescription drugs. She could have been helped.
- Everybody in this building knows that the housing market was the root of the financial crisis. Here’s the problem: They’re scared of crossing the financial industry and being defeated with the industry’s money. So they’re silent. Silent. Silent. Silent. Their rationale is: If I get defeated, I’m not going to be able to do anything. That’s what the problem is. I want to start a $20 million PAC for the people on the street. Then I’d get something done.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.