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Thoughtful Americans agree that the endless begging for funds and votes by congressmen is a blight to democracy. Oh, and so is congressional gerrymandering. Americans agree about that, too.
Let me talk about the first of these. Before last November's elections I was in constant contact with Brad Schneider, the incumbent Democratic congressman from Illinois' Tenth District. URGENT was the slug on his 11th-hour appeal for contributions, which came on the heels of e-mails slugged SENSATIONAL!!!! and Sadly. The emotional flogging was relentless. But who could blame Schneider for being so keyed up? He'd been elected just two years earlier, narrowly defeating the incumbent, Bob Dold, who'd served only two years himself. Thanks in part to a redrawn district, Dold in 2012 was rated one of the most vulnerable Republicans in Congress, and Schneider nudged him with 50.6 percent of the vote.
But 2014 was correctly expected to be a much better year for Republicans, and now it was Schneider's turn to be deemed one of Congress's most vulnerable. Sure enough: Dold got 51.3 percent of the vote last November and went back to Washington. Schneider came home.
After that election the volume of e-mail from the Tenth District tapered off awhile, but it never stopped entirely, and now—16 months before next year's general election—it's picking up the pace. Democrats do better in years when the race for president tops the ballot, and that's why it's Dold's turn to be considered one of the most vulnerable . . . etc. Schneider has high hopes of reclaiming the seat.
That's why May brought e-mail from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee headlined "Vulnerable One-Term Wonder Bob Dold Reneges on Promise of Certainty for Illinois Businesses." It's why last Friday I opened an e-mail from "Brad Schneider for Congress" that denounced an antiabortion bill that had just passed the House and asked me to sign a petition and "join Brad and Democrats across the country and take a stand for women's rights!"
It's why four days earlier Brad Schneider for Congress let me know that his "race to take back this district for Democrats can go either way. So all eyes are on us. The Koch Brothers, Karl Rove, Boehner . . . they're all scheming on how to beat Brad." Anything I could contribute would help.
The other side has not been silent. The same day Schneider warned me about the Koch Brothers I got email from the National Republican Congressional Committee letting me know that Brad Schneider "can’t tell the difference between a deal that protects Israel and one that threatens to wipe it off the map" but Bob Dold can. In June the NRCC let me know the Washington Post had just called Dold "one of the most bipartisan members of the House of representatives," and gave me the head's-up that the National Democratic Congressional Committee hadn’t made an endorsement yet in next year's Tenth District primary. Which, said the NRCC, "raises a lot of questions about how seriously—or not—Democrats are taking his candidacy." Yes, Schneider has picked up a primary opponent—the mayor of Highland Park, Nancy Rotering—which means that before Schneider can spend the money he’s raising to thwart the schemes of Rove, Boehner, and the Kochs, he'll be spending it to defeat another Democrat.
According to the Sun-Times last week, Dold has a little more than a million dollars on hand to spend trying to get reelected, while Schneider and Rotering have war chests of $482,000 and $660,000 respectively. The general election is 16 months away but the race is already in the backstretch.
At the top of this essay I mentioned a second plague on democracy—gerrymandering. If you don't like it Bob Dold feels your pain, and he's cosponsoring a couple of bills to reform the process. One bill would make the states turn over the job of redrawing congressional districts to independent, bipartisan commissions. The other would make the redistricting process transparent and allow for public input.
"The corrupt process of gerrymandering has led to a deeply partisan and ineffective Congress," Dold said when the bills were introduced in March. He noted that a recent survey had rated only 20 percent of the 435 House districts as competitive.
So I sent an e-mail to Dold's Washington office. "Can a district be too competitive?" I wondered. (As I've written before, when your district's represented by someone half the district didn't vote for, someone who's held the office a few months and will probably be replaced next year and devotes every waking hour to making sure that doesn't happen, I'm not sure democracy is well served. Or to put it another way, democracy might be well served, but are you?)
What I got back was boiler plate about competitive districts allowing the voice of the people to ring louder and clearer. That's dandy, I replied, but I asked if I could hear from Dold directly "on what I suspect he thinks is true—that putting aside all the horrors of gerrymandering (which I don't deny), it's a pain in the buttinski to have to run as hard as he does as often as he does just to stay in Washington."
He can't deny that with a straight face, I was thinking. Alas, arrangements could not be made and I didn't speak with him. Even so, it was a better response than I got from Schneider's office, where each time I called someone was going to call me back and no one did. Do hamsters on a treadmill think they can't afford to admit they're not having fun?