That's the end line of an anecdote my new Congressman Ben Ray Luján told at a small town meeting (by invitation, for "progressives") over the weekend. The story to go with is below the fold. Rather than go to the meeting planning a speech, I brought my camera, a notebook, and paid attention.
I met Ben Ray several times during the campaign season, including when he came to Netroots Nation to appear on a panel I organized. I've watched him interact with a variety of groups, and listened to him speak numerous times. I like the guy.
He's young, he's full of energy, and was on board as an Obama supporter early. In time, he could become jaded or cynical, could be seduced by power, or even corrupted. You never really know what will happen over time. But right now? I'm happy with my Congressman.
The picture to the right is from an event last fall, the weekend before the election. That's the Congressman to be - and it was never in doubt after he won the primary - helping close up for an event at the end of a long day. Some day, he might be different kind of Chairman, but this is it for now.
Back to those teeth I mentioned in this diary's title. One of the first questions was about health care for veterans. Hispanics and Native Americans, who make up much of the population in these parts, have high rates of military service. Ditto on rural areas, where medical services are scarce, and VA facilities hours drive away from home.
Ben Ray told about an 85-year-old WWII veteran the questioner had been helping through the bureaucratic nightmare to get his GI benefits. It took years, and when he recently got his check it was a lump sum payment. When asked what he was gonna do with it, he said: "I'm gonna get me some dentures."
The man was kept waiting for years needing friggin' teeth! It's stuff like that which makes people cuss out the government.
Ben Ray mentioned wanting to change the rules under which the VA discourages vets from crossing state lines to use VA facilities. In other words, they require someone to drive a coupla hundred miles from Mesilla to Albuquerque for service, rather than the much shorter distance to El Paso, Texas.
Ben Ray has a lot of enthusiasm for policy, and pays attention to ways to help make their lives a little better.
There were several questions about health care. Our crowd was for single-payer, which is what Ben Ray prefers. Here's a picture of the crowd at the town meeting:
Even though I'm mostly saying I like my Congressman, my other purpose with this diary is to tick off what the questions from the crowd were. Before the floor was thrown open, we got a short speech about what Congress had been up to, what the Congressman had been up to, and a lot of practical information about input to, and tracking of, stimulus-related projects.
- The first questioner wanted a natural gas pipeline to go into a mountain valley in the south part of the county. The organizer of the event didn't know who he was, and he sucked up a fair amount of time. And Ben Ray is seriously into green jobs and alternative energy - you could tell he wasn't excited with this questioner. Our large district includes much of the high plains of eastern New Mexico (the darker blue part on the north of the map below) - prime country for wind energy, as well as our excellent conditions for solar.
- The second speaker said: "We need single payer. What are you doing to make it happen?"
- A board member from our REA (rural electric) co-op asked what the stimulus would do to create rural jobs, noting that the needed infrastructure would make the cost per job higher than in more densely populated areas.
- Los Alamos: The weapons lab is in our district, and there's a lot of will for remissioning the place. With Domenici out of the picture it will be a little easier, because he always propped that part of it up. Sen. Udall has long favored a remissioning towards nuclear non-proliferation, cyber-security, "smart grid" R&D, alternative energy development, public health, environmental cleanup technologies, etc. What Ben Ray says is that the "brain trust" and facilities need to be preserved, but given different things to do - a widely held view in the area. Environmental cleanup at Los Alamos is gonna get a chunk of "stimulus" money. Good.
- There's been talking of moving the state's weapons labs to the Defense Department. There's not much will for it with the delegation, so hopefully that will die on the vine. Remissioning and environmental compliance/cleanup will be more difficult under defense, so the Rep. opposes it.
- Health care for veterans, but I already discussed that above. It is noted that single payer will make things easier for veterans to get services nearer to home.
- Prescription drugs for seniors - the donut hole must go! And, please, could Congress write the next health care bill, rather than the lobbyists for pharma and insurance? Again with the Greek chorus: Single payer! Luján encouraged us not to procrastinate providing input - before the end of the month, he says.
- Immigration: The Hispanic caucus, of which Luján is a member, is eager to take this up. A few stories were told about how fucked up the current system is. I won't bother to repeat them.
- Health care again: This person is rooting for Medicare for all.
- What kind of oversight of stimulus money and project will there be?
- Do you read your email? Are we wasting our time to send it?
- Mayor Cordova of Taos: Is already cooperating re: energy performance building codes, regional broadband (we still have large areas of dial-up only, not even with cell coverage), and a few other things.
- Taos Pueblo precinct captain: Please come for a meeting like this on the reservation. It's a very Democratic enclave, voting around 95% for Democrats in most races. Ben Ray did get some tribal funding added into a recent wastewater bill under Rep. Obey. Problems with Indian Health Service delivering services, and the chorus again says: "Single payer!" Plus she added a pan-Indian issue, that the Cobell class action suit needs to be settled. (Cobell settlement seconded by a subsequent speaker.)
- UNM Taos (mostly a community college) Dean of Instruction says that NCLB has caused problems with people wanting to go into vocational and technical educational tracks. They want to work with stimulus to provide training for workers in Green Jobs, health sciences, water and natural resources. And we need to quit teaching just to tests. Ben Ray likes STEM approach to education - he talks about science all the time. (STEM is acronym for Science Technical Engineering & Math)
- A woman who works as a high school math tutor doesn't much like NCLB either. But mainly wants suggestions how to help improve health services for veterans. Ben Ray reminded us that "Fired Up! Ready to Go!" came from a woman at a town meeting not unlike ours, and continually encouraged us to participate.
Other matters were handled one-on-one after the event was formally over.
Congressman Luján also stressed the online tools available to have input into policy. If we're gonna get single payer, he says, it will require a grassroots groundswell. One guy asked: Do you read your e-mail? Or are we wasting our time to send it? He claims there are people looking at it.
Just some disjointed notes. If we base it on our town hall meeting, our concerns are a lot like what the Obama administration is putting forward. Health care was the top concern, with education, jobs and energy coming up repeatedly. And a few specialty niche concerns.
I'll close with some pictures of Ben Ray leftover from last fall. This from a rally in the small mountain village of Peñasco:
And this from an event at Taos Pueblo. The lady using her finger for emphasis is a 90+-year-old dynamo.
I guess I'd report that there's hope in the air, even in the midst of a lot of trouble in the world. And people willing to pitch in. Could be worse. For whatever reason, I tapped into Rep. Luján's infectious enthusiasm and determination. I don't want to spend all my time outraged or depressed, no matter how messed up things are. There's useful things needing doing, and it was a roomful of people connected to a variety of institutions determined to do some of that doing. Good. All that hard work during campaign season was only the beginning. There is still much needing doing.
Sorry for a somewhat rambling disorganized diary, but I just felt like writing this up. And I really like having a Congressman who knows me by name, and whom I like his positions and work. Maybe it'll go bad sometime later. But for now, things look hopeful from here - one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the nation.
Endnote: I introduced someone to Ben Ray, but they didn't realize till later that he was the Congressman. They expected someone with lots more pomp and circumstance.