January 20, 2017
Dear Friends in the Offices of Senator Susan Collins:
I write this to “Constituent Services” well aware that it’s a vague and enormous category of functions fulfilled by dozens of individuals who wake up every day, rub their eyes, have coffee or don’t, don their congressional credentials, and head in to work. I’ve never met any of you. I may never meet most of you. But we’ll be talking.
I’ll admit, while I’ve been more politically active in my life than the average person, I’ve failed to take full advantage of the tools available to me in a representative democracy. That ended on November 8, 2016. I look myself in the mirror today confident that it has ended for good.
Senator Collins defied her party in rejecting Donald Trump and his campaign. I was electrified by that decision, not just because I rejected him too but because it felt like a dead form of leadership brought back to life. She was acting on principle. After the election I watched to see if she’d keep doing so.
I watched, and I started making calls. To her? Well yes, but really to you, in the hope you’d send my humble opinions up the chain. Today I write this letter because, contemplating inauguration and the difficult years that are sure to follow, I feel uncomfortable thinking of you as messengers only. Or even as messengers primarily.
I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge you as individuals, especially since my conversations with you in the coming months will invariably include some version of “Will you please tell Senator Collins that…” I know nothing about you, but there are a few things I can intuit.
Mostly I can intuit that you’re where you are because you have some faith in government and because there are ideas in which you strongly believe. You have a sense that we’re all in this together. This is also true of me. Acting on it is constant, murky guesswork. I respect you deeply for the commitment you’ve made.
Whatever positions we may hold, you and I – and Senator Collins – must choose, moment to moment, how we will negotiate this guesswork and not be too hard on ourselves when we guess wrong (but learn from those moments regardless). Since I’ll be asking you not just to listen to my opinions but also to relay them, I figure I owe you a brief explanation of how I negotiate it.
I’m interested in what will do the most good for the greatest number of people. I don’t claim any objective wisdom on what that means or how it looks. Like I said, guesswork. My gut has sensors that are generally well calibrated to my ideals but not 100% of the time. Still, they go off reliably when I hear proposals and positions that promise to restrict opportunity and rights.
What about the right to bear arms? Particularly murky issues like this one urge us to precision in our guesswork, and it’s worth mentioning here only to illustrate the paces through which I put my values in order to arrive at a belief, and to show you and Senator Collins that the last sentence of the preceding paragraph is not selective or disingenuous.
People have hunted since there were people. This connection to the land is a sacred passion alive and well in the state of Maine. We own guns for this reason, but also because our framers gave us certain latitude for self-protection. The statistics on gun-related violence persuade me that we don’t risk forfeiting that latitude if we make gun ownership contingent on some extra steps. In fact, doing so acknowledges what gun ownership is: a privilege as well as a right.
In all things, we must ask ourselves how our individual rights can endure while doing the least harm and making health and prosperity accessible to and likely for all. This allows for a nuanced position like the one above. But more importantly, it requires it.
Here’s what I hope. I hope Senator Collins understands that her success, and her legacy, are staked not on being a good Republican but on being a good leader. (I, for my part, would rather be a good citizen than a good Democrat.) This means not legislating to save face, and not honoring private relationships over the responsibility to govern judiciously.
I don’t know Senator Jeff Sessions personally, but the actions he has taken, and the statements he has made, in public life convince me that he is not professionally interested in prosperity for all, and is therefore unqualified for his appointment. Senator Collins may know him privately as a “decent man,” but she owes her constituents more specificity – more evidence that he’ll promote the general welfare – when she calls him a “dedicated public servant” and the record says otherwise.
The record also indicates that more Americans have quality, affordable health insurance now than ever before. Prominent Republicans have opposed the Affordable Care Act since its passage, but as a thinking person and an American susceptible to illness and disease, I’m afraid of the aggressive “repeal and replace” refrain, because it feels face-saving above all. Obliterating the law, even with a hastily fashioned alternative in the wings, will devastate the lives of millions, so why not improve it instead, even though the fundamentals were set on a Democrat’s watch?
Leadership is not about getting credit. And often the best leadership necessarily goes unnoticed, because it focuses our attention on the substance and potential of our own lives, not on the greatness of our leaders. This is courage. This is judicious governance. I’ll be holding Senator Collins to it.
And in the process, I’ll be chatting with you regularly. For my part, I promise that I will always smile, and always listen. Will you do the same?
Thank you for reading. I’ll close by invoking the wisdom of Jonathan Haidt, who argues that our moral positions are forged not in reason but emotion, with reason furnishing the details later.
It’s about to be an emotional time. But I’ll be thinking of all my fellow citizens as I channel that emotion into figuring out what’s next, and what’s right. May Susan Collins – your senator and mine – do the same.
As a child, while his friends traded baseball cards and played video games, Joe Pinto watched the speeches of US presidents and marveled at the genius of representative democracy. A lifelong progressive, he believes the social contract exists to drive the ongoing redesign of self-government until inequity is wrung out and prosperity in reach of all. He grew up in the suburbs of New York City and attended Brown University. A career educator, he has been a designer and builder of new Title I public high schools in New York's historically least served districts. He does not accept a politics of exclusion or blame but feels there are important unheard stories across America and values beyond his own that are legitimate and powerful. Donald Trump is not his president.