Echoes from Route 50


Last night, as I sat watching all the noisy commentary and banter of election night, I kept hearing echoes – faint, but familiar. They weren’t coming from the reporters or the pundits, but from the numbers themselves – especially when the election map turned to middle-of-the-country places like Missouri, Indiana, Ohio and Kansas.

What was coming back to me, as the numbers rolled in, were the comments I’d heard during the spring of 2005, when I spent 50 days on the road talking politics with people who live along US Route 50. That highway slices through the heart of the nation, from Maryland to California. I figured if I spent some time with people who live along that road, I’d understand more about why people vote the way they do.

What I found on that trip was an almost universal sense that Washington was a world unto itself, and that members of Congress were utterly disconnected from the needs and desires of the people they were supposed to represent. Almost everyone complained about what they saw as endless partisanship and bickering, often over the most petty of issues, while the big problems went unsolved.

This was the spring of 2005 – before Katrina, and before Iraq started plunging ever more swiftly into civil war. They weren’t yet to the final stage of discontent: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more!” But they were getting closer.

As Election Day approached, I couldn’t help but notice that Route 50 also ran right through the heart of the election map, with some of the tightest tossups in the nation. Last night, nearly all those tossups went against the GOP incumbents.

When the pundits and reporters turned their attention last night to the Senate race in Missouri, I was struck by one comment they said about Democrat Claire McCaskill, the eventual winner: she didn’t just stick to the cities. She campaigned energetically in rural areas of the state – places where the GOP has been deeply entrenched for years, places normally written off by Democrats.

I took that as a hopeful sign – an unusual approach by a Democrat, but one that would be welcomed by people in the heartland who so often feel overlooked. If McCaskill – and the rest of the new Democratic freshmen coming to Washington – can keep those middle America voters at the top of their minds, there may be hope yet for some progress over the next two years.

People want to be listened to. They want responsive lawmakers in Washington without having to hire a lobbyist to look out for their interests.

They don’t like partisanship. They don’t like bickering, gridlock, or incompetence. They want a government that serves the people. They want politicians to remember where they came from.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the echoes I was hearing last night – a few comments from some of the people who live along Route 50, in response to the question: What do you expect from your representatives in Washington?

To be flat-out honest with the people. Don’t lie.

Jerry Morgan
Gerald, MO

I expect them to see the whole picture and not just parts of the picture. I expect them not to be swayed by the monies involved and the corporate people who have the big bucks. I expect them to think of not only the poor and the wealthy, but also the working middle class.

Marilyn McComber
Strong City, KS

I don’t expect them to do everything for me. I expect them to do what’s right. I don’t expect them to ignore their own conscience – assuming, of course, they have one. I expect them to be bigger than party affiliation, and that sometimes means bucking your own party if you know it’s wrong.

Ellen Terrell
Washington, DC

What I look for is integrity. People who will actually do what they think is the right thing to do, and listen. I don’t expect a representative to listen to everything the constituents say, because it would be nuts – but that they state what their principles are, and then they pursue those principles. And they don’t change them because you’ve got somebody lobbying you and giving you a lot of money to take a position on something you don’t believe in.

Martin Fine
Camino, CA

So congratulations to all the winners and welcome to Washington. Your nation has lofty expectations. Please don’t disappoint.