FREDERICKSBURG FREE LANCE-STAR
One of the greater threats to the American experiment over the past two decades has been the death of the notion of politics as public service.
At the national level, leaders like soon-to-be former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have been responsible for framing politics not as service-focused, but power-focused, with winning at any cost the goal. The price for their cynicism has been increased political polarization.
We are not naïve — the quest for power has always been part of the American experiment. Watching the play “Hamilton” is an enjoyable way to be reminded of that. But in an age where we no longer know our neighbors, spend considerably less time engaged in the public square, and create information silos that limit our exposure to opposing views, the loss of the public service ideal is more than worrying, it’s potentially lethal to democracy.
Abigail Spanberger is a refreshing new type of politician working to return the idea of public service to political life. Much is made of her record as a bipartisan legislator, which is a notable accomplishment. But it’s an accomplishment that reflects her ability to work in a limited body, Congress.
What is discussed less is her commitment to serving the 830,000 citizens of Virginia’s 7th District, who represent a broad spectrum of races, backgrounds, and careers.
The Editorial Board interviewed Spanberger on Nov. 29, and it was the level of commitment to these constituents, and her commitment to public service, that caught our ear.
For example, asked what her priorities would be in the newly structured 7th District, and where she thought she could score some wins for constituents, she began not with a discussion of bills she would introduce or legislation she felt could move, but the “brass tacks of governance.”
We need to make sure, she began, that “local elected officials know the folks in my office, know me, know what we can help with,” she began. She explained that staff members are responsible for particular regions of the district. In jurisdictions new to the district, her priority is assigning a staff member who will both know the players in the area and serve as a liaison to her.
Another pressing concern for Spanberger is the issue of community project funding. CPF, according to her office, was created to allow members of Congress during the annual appropriations process to submit applications for federal funding to support local projects.
It is a potentially significant source of revenue for the district. For example, it was through the CPF process that she secured $1.8 million for the water treatment plant expansion in Spotsylvania County.
If the Republican majority chooses to retain this funding mechanism, Spanberger has a lot of work ahead to get her new constituents up to speed on the process. That’s because she is gaining citizens in Fredericksbug, King George, Caroline, Stafford, and a portion of Prince William that Rep. Rob Wittman previously served. Wittman, she notes, did not take part in CPF, so leaders in those areas arguably know little about what’s available to them.
If Republicans keep CPF, Spanberger says, “our first order of business … is now shifted toward lots of education about this really important funding issue.”
Even when she shifted from the brass tacks of governance to talking about her work in Congress, it was her constituents who were front of mind. Referencing her role on the Agriculture Committee, for example, she discussed the importance of knowing firsthand the needs of schools and food banks and other groups in the district so that “when we go into the Farm Bill, I’m bringing really specific examples of what matters in our community.”
To be sure, these efforts by Spanberger and her staff don’t draw the kind of attention that’s going to land her photo in the New York Times, as happened with her push to ban lawmakers in Congress and their family members from trading individual stocks.
We imagine that doesn’t much matter to her. Speaking on election night, she referenced a package she had received from a former Republican representative following her 2018 victory. In it was a letter that wished her and her family well, and included this line: “Humility and empathy are the keys to meaningful public service.”
Those words, and a commitment to government as public service, drive Spanberger. They could also be the key to healing the divisiveness in our public discourse.