Congress isn’t doing so hot these days. With our legislative branch stuck in DC rush hour-levels of gridlock — for a number of reasons — there’s little incentive for our representatives to, well, represent us. And the voters have noticed.
However, while it’s easy to write off anyone whose name is preceded by the word “Representative” as some kind of negative adjective ranging from “ineffective” to “evil,” some members of Congress today are actually doing their jobs, and doing them well.
Congressman Mark Pocan, who represents Wisconsin’s 2nd district, is one of those good guys. And it isn’t just because he is, like me, an openly gay liberal Democrat. He’s more than that. He’s the kind of politician everyone says they want.
Wisconsin’s 2nd district includes not only the notoriously liberal city of Madison (often described as “78 square miles surrounded by reality”), but also many suburban communities and rural townships. In fact, most of its voters live outside of Madison. From 1991 to 1999 it was represented by a Republican.
Unlike some of his colleagues from Wisconsin, Pocan is interested in enacting legislation that would help his constituents, not his PAC or his aspirations for higher office. He has partnered with Congressman Keith Ellison (D – MN) to draft a bill that would establish a constitutional right to vote, garnering a resounding “True” rating from PolitiFact when he pointed out that less than 25 percent of Americans could vote when our nation’s founding document was written. This Earth Day, along with Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), he proposed a bill that would ban fracking on public lands.
Pocan has sponsored legislation that would extend employment and retirement benefits for federal employees to their domestic partners. He’s also spearheaded an effort to allow citizens with student debt to consolidate and refinance their loans.
At a time when there is intense pressure on Democrats to toe the line on “free trade” and adopt a milquetoast, centrist license for corporate greed, Pocan does otherwise. He opposes the “fast-track” Trade Promotion Authority Bill, saying, “With still too many questions left unanswered and a history of broken trade promises, Congress should not give away its constitutional authority to the President – regardless of party.”
Why should Pocan care about these issues? It would be pretty easy for him to follow the lead of, say, Senator Chuck Schumer and cultivate ties to large corporations while ignoring his most underprivileged constituents. The Democratic Party, after all, still rewards this behavior with leadership and prestige.
While we worry — with good reason — that Hillary Clinton’s top donors are the very financial institutions that wrecked our economy in 2007, Mark Pocans top donors are from education and labor. And his independence from Wall Street shows, as he is the lone sponsor of a bill that would require issuers of securities to disclose the pre-tax profit of and taxes paid on those securities.
Pocan’s consistent advocacy for actual people instead of corporate interests probably lies in his background in small (as opposed to big) business — he once owned his own printing company — and his roots in Kenosha, a Rust Belt town on Lake Michigan hollowed out by the loss of middle-class manufacturing jobs. The word “grassroots” means more to you if your neighborhood is peppered with empty and decaying lots that are literally overrun by wild grass. Even Madison, relatively prosperous as it is, has one such hole in its urban fabric.
As former Rep. Barney Frank told the New Yorker, “It’s the smaller businesses that have natural grassroots networks: Realtors, mortgage brokers, auto dealers, community banks. They’re in everybody’s district.” Pocan understands both sides of that local business/local representative relationship, and governs in kind.
If every Democrat in Congress had half of Mark Pocan’s passion for justice and public service they’d have more seats in Congress, not less. Pocan won his congressional seat twice with 68 percent of the vote. This kind of success in a district that, as I noted above, was represented by a Republican not that long ago shows that progressive values can and do win in purple America.
It’s easy to look at Congress, shake your head and complain that everything is awful and can’t ever get better. For disaffected liberals around the country, Mark Pocan is the alternative — the counterexample — showing that good people can get elected to Congress and succeed once they’re there.