In March 2012, I had a wonderful opportunity to travel to Israel with a group of affordable housing professionals to meet with our counterparts in that country who are working to address many of the same housing challenges we face in this country. It was a facinating week of tours, lectures, meetings, debates, and bus rides. We learned a great deal and I believe we were also able to help our colleagues.
While I expected to learn about housing policy, I did not expect to learn - or should I say re-learn - a lesson about the importance of representative democracy.
Throughout the week, when I would talk with Israeli activists about trying to change government policies we would have trouble connecting. I would describe how we run our advocacy campaigns and the power of meeting with members of Congress or the Legislature. I would implore them to organize meetings with their elected officials. It took me several days to realize that in Israel's Parlimentary system (like those in other countries) members of the National Legislature (called the Knesset) are appointed by their political party. Local communities do not have their own member of Parliment who is accountable to them.
Now the American political system has its problems - money dominates the process, an entrenched two party system limits the range of debate, incumbants are virtually immune from defeat, gerry mandering has polarized the system, and partisan gridlock has brought our system to a near standstill.
Yet despite all of those problems, I still have a member of Congress who represents my neighborhood and two members of the Senate who represent my state. While your Representative or Senator does not have to agree with you on any particular issue, he or she still has to represent you and listen to you. We can send emails and make phone calls. We can talk to them at community meetings and events. This was brought home to me last week when a delegation of MACDC staff and members met with Senator Scott Brown in his Washington DC office. Our group was there for the annual NACEDA summit and met with six Congressional offices during the day. Not only did Senator Brown meet with our group, but he expressed his continued support for CDBG and HOME, thereby prioritizing the views of his constituents over those of his Republican colleagues who seek to slash these vital programs.
Can you imagine what Congress would be like if members had no accountability to their local communities - if they were only accountable to the political party that appointed them?
The same dynamic is true at the state level. One reason that the Community Development Partnership Act was able to pass the House of Representatives last week is because of representative government. We recently organized 23 local district meetings with over 60 legislators and brought over 200 constiuents to the State House on May 3. In total, MACDC and its members have talked with 111 legislators so far during our campaign. And our representatives heard us and they understood us. As state legisaltors, they represent a place - a community. They know the people who live there and the community's unique assets and challenges. They see their job as fighting to make their community a better place, just like we do (even if we might sometimes disagree about how to best do that.) So when it comes time to talk to them about community development - about our efforts to improve our communities - it resonates for them. When we talk about the need for bottom up solutions that respond to local needs - they get it. When we talk about place-making, they understand it (even if they would not use our jargon!)
Obviously, not every elected official is equally thoughtful and open minded. And American democracy is deeply flawed. We need serious change - starting with campaign finance reform and an end to gerry mandering that reduces political competition.
That said, I'm thankful for what our system does offer - a chance to be heard by an elected official who knows the place where I live - and the precinct where I vote.