Congressional offices are sometimes like a vehicle's safety air bag. Until you need it for something critically important, you might not even think about it being there. But if you're a veteran who needs help navigating the VA health system; a low-income woman who is having trouble getting foods stamps for your children; a small business owner with an erroneous tax bill from the IRS; a senior whose Social Security check got lost in the mail; or even an international traveler who did not realize your passport was expired until a couple weeks before your scheduled departure, you come to find out very quickly just how imperative it is to have a dogged advocate in your corner to successfully navigate government agencies and resolve these problems.
Elections often spotlight legislative accomplishments, voting histories and position statements on issues to determine who is best qualified to serve. These are important measures. However, in my opinion, it is the inglorious and gritty side of governing — assisting the individuals we are elected to serve — that is the most important responsibility of the job. On the constituent services scorecard, there is a huge difference between the candidates seeking to replace U.S Senator Barbara Mikulski, and Chris Van Hollen wins by a landslide.
For most of the eight years that I was privileged to serve in the Maryland House of Delegates, my legislative district in Montgomery County overlapped two of our state's federal Congressional districts: the 8th (Chris Van Hollen) and the 4th (Donna Edwards). This means we shared the casework of nearly 100,000 constituents — with my office covering their state needs and Mr. Van Hollen and Ms. Edwards working on their federal concerns. This experience gave me an intimate view of the inner workings of each office. The difference between them could not be more dramatic.
Mr. Van Hollen's office has a well-earned stellar reputation for responsiveness, attention to details and speedy resolution to the toughest challenges a constituent can present. I witnessed this reputation in action when our offices had shared portfolios for neighbors with complicated needs. Unfortunately, I also saw the opposite extreme on display in Ms. Edwards' office. A familiar pattern emerged over the years for many of my constituents living in that district: No matter how often you called or emailed or pleaded in person to get attention to your problem, it would often be ignored. I know from experience that any public official can get overwhelmed with their duties and unknowingly allow an occasional request to fall through the cracks. It is embarrassing, but not uncommon. I have sympathy for that. But for a legislator to have a consistent record of not responding to the needs of constituents is akin to malpractice in our field.
In fact, what is most memorable are the times that my office — frustrated with our inability to help a constituent connect with their 4th district representative — would eventually turn to Mr. Van Hollen's office for assistance with those cases. To Mr. Van Hollen's credit, his team never once complained about stepping up to do more work for people they were never elected to represent. They just knew it was the right thing to do.
As Harry Truman was fond of saying, "The buck stops here." The culture of an office gets set at the top. What are the boss' priorities? What is considered most important for the staff to address? From my experience, only one of these members of Congress consistently made certain to treat the most vulnerable seeking their assistance as top prerogatives.
Job No. 1 in politics isn't about passing the most bills, appearing on the local TV stations, carving out and advancing an ideology, or even voting the right way (though all of these things matter). No, the most important job is first taking care of the people. Barbara Mikulski gets that, and her legacy leaves some mighty big shoes to fill. By showing a sincere regard for the people he serves, Chris Van Hollen is the only one in this race ready to step into them.
Heather R. Mizeur is a former two-term member of the Maryland House of Delegates and was a 2014 Democratic candidate for governor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.