On Politics
5:00 am
Sun October 14, 2012

Can Rhode Island elect some blue-collar people to Congress?

Former Rhode Island congressman Edward Beard gets a shout-out in today’s New York Times as an example of something quite rare: a one-time blue-collar worker who won election to Congress.

Nicholas Carnes, a professor of public policy at Duke University, uses his op-ed piece to argue that we really don’t get to choose whether we’re governed by the rich:

By Election Day, that choice has usually been made for us. Would you like to be represented by a millionaire lawyer or a millionaire businessman? Even in our great democracy, we rarely have the option to put someone in office who isn’t part of the elite.

Carnes notes that many white-collar candidates care deeply about blue-collar Americans, and some may be just a generation removed from the working class. Yet he wonders why so few people run for office who have worked in blue-collar jobs even for a small part of their lives.

If millionaires were a political party, that party would make up roughly 3 percent of American families, but it would have a super-majority in the Senate, a majority in the House, a majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House. If working-class Americans were a political party, that party would have made up more than half the country since the start of the 20th century. But legislators from that party (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before entering politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.

Carnes points to Beard, a former painter who won election to Congress in 1974, as a sign of how blue-collar workers carry a different mindset than former lawyers or former businesspeople: he carried a paintbrush with him and “tacked one to the wall outside of his Washington office.”

The key is finding more lawmakers like Mr. Beard, politically adept working-class Americans. Or people like Representative Stephen Lynch, who worked as an ironworker in Boston for nearly two decades before attending law school and becoming a legal advocate for workers — politicians who worked their way up to white-collar jobs but who still remember what it’s like to push a broom.

The trend toward meager political representation by former blue-collar workers holds mostly true in Rhode Island – where the biggest General Assembly caucus is made of lawyers, not Democrats or Republicans.

Let’s take a look at the state’s congressional delegation.

– Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who has devoted his life to government and public service, is part of a family that made a long-ago fortune in railroads. His predecessor, Lincoln Chafee, is part of Rhode Island’s founding “Five Families.”

– Senator Jack Reed, a janitor’s son from Cranston, worked his way up through the Army, Harvard Law, and the state Senate. After winning his Senate seat in 1996, he’s steadily gained seniority and influence.

– Congressman David Cicilline prospered as a defense lawyer before becoming the mayor of Providence in 2002.

– Congressman Jim Langevin, severely injured in an accidental shooting as a teenager, has been ensconced in Congresss since winning election in 2000.

In his opinion piece, Carnes holds out some hope for electing more blue-collar people to Congress. Here’s his argument about why it matters:

Even if we somehow stem the tide of money in Washington, even if we guarantee equal participation on Election Day, millionaires will still get to set the tax rate for millionaires. White-collar professionals will still get to set the minimum wage for blue-collar workers. People who have always had health insurance will still get to decide whether to help people without it. If we want government for the people, we’ve got to start working toward government by the people. The 2012 election offers us a stark choice between two very different approaches to economic policy. But it’s still a choice between two Harvard-educated millionaires. Even in an election that is supposed to be about the future of our economy, we don’t have a working-class option in the voting booth.

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