By Janet Williams
Some citizens from the Fifth Congressional District recently dropped in on their representative, Susan Brooks, at her Carmel office to talk with her about what’s been happening in Washington.
Brooks, who is serving her third term in Congress, wasn’t there, but her staff divided them into two groups and listened to their concerns, which were mostly about how they don’t like the direction President Trump is taking the country.
Janet Williams, editor, TheStatehouseFile.com
Before the meeting with the office staffers ended, one person in the group asked whether Brooks would be holding a town hall.
No, he was told, because the congresswoman prefers speaking one-on-one with her constituents.
The same person asked if they could schedule one-on-ones with Brooks. After a brief give and take the visitors were put off. They went away frustrated.
Now maybe you might think this incident will come back to haunt Brooks when the next election rolls around.
Not so. She is in one of the safest congressional seats in the country – a district so firmly Republican that Democrats on the ballot can only hope to lose by less than a landslide. For the record, she crushed her Democratic opponent, Angela Demaree, winning 62 percent of the vote.
That’s the way it is with gerrymandering, the practice of herding voters into legislative districts by political affiliation rather than by geographic, economic or other interests. You end up with districts so lopsided that the election is over after the primary.
And where does that leave the voters who might be on the losing side of that landslide? Grumbling and frustrated like the group of people who showed up to Brooks’ office, feeling that their voices don’t matter.
It’s the same thing at the state level where the Indiana House and Senate are so gerrymandered that citizens who disagree with the status quo have little chance of being heard.
Sure, you can rally at the Statehouse as dozens, maybe hundreds, of people did last month to tell their elected officials that it’s time to stop gerrymandering. Draw fair district lines so citizens of all political persuasions have a chance to be heard was their theme.
A bill before the House—co-authored by Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis—was killed singlehandedly by Rep. Milo Smith, a Columbus Republican in another safely gerrymandered seat. He won his last election with 61 percent of the vote.
Smith, chair of the House Election and Apportionment Committee, listened to 90 minutes of testimony from the people who traveled from across the state to testify in favor of a bill to create a nonpartisan commission to draw state and federal legislative district lines. Then he decided against holding a committee vote, which had the effect of killing the bill for this session.
All of the citizens who traveled to the Statehouse to participate in democracy heard one thing — your voice doesn’t count. And that’s the same message the citizens who showed up to Brooks’ office left with.
Now Brooks, who has worked with Democrats on some issues and says she listens to all people in her district, does meet regularly with constituents, just not in large town hall settings.
In a statement she said: “Since being elected, I’ve held Connect with Your Congresswoman events regularly throughout the Fifth District. These settings are an opportunity for an open and constructive dialogue with individuals or small groups of constituents about the issues that matter most to them.”
At her last event in Anderson, she said she was able to meet with all 181 people who signed in and were able to wait.
This is not about Brooks and how she represents her district. She has been a thoughtful public servant throughout her long career. This is about how gerrymandered legislative districts stifle true democracy where our representatives can compete fairly in the marketplace of ideas and policies.
At the Statehouse there is one truism — no bill is ever truly dead until the session ends. Except this time thanks to the Milo Smith, and with it a shot at creating a real representative democracy in Indiana.
Janet Williams is editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.