A tale of two former Congressional bosses: A fighter & a lost soul
In recent days the right-wing’s racist paranoia against refugees and immigrants in response to the horrific terrorists attacks in Paris and Beirut has predictably gripped the elite political and media establishment up and down the Acela corridor.
As a political activist and former hill staffer, it has been surreal to see how my two former bosses in Congress have responded in vastly different ways to this xenophobic propaganda. But as an immigrant from a Muslim country, these responses are deeply personal, too: One filling me with pride. The other, a saddening and hurtful gut punch.
27 years ago, I was fortunate to enough to migrate to the United States with my parents and siblings. We worked hard to be productive members of our respective communities, and become citizens, in pursuit of the American dream, cliched as it may be. To this day we have a picture of President John F. Kennedy’s in our family’s garage.
I was brought up with a deep respect for American ideals, and a deep desire to continue pushing for the progress that was essential to the story of our nation. It was those ideals that made me want to engage in public service. In 2005, I embarked on an exciting and rewarding four year stint on Capitol Hill, as I joined the Committee staff of then Ranking Member of the House Rules Committee — Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, who had established herself as one of the most aggressive, strategic and fiery progressives in the House Democratic Caucus. After two great years in Congresswoman Slaughter’s office, I became a member of then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s leadership staff.
I moved on from each office with nothing but the deepest admiration, respect and love for both of these two officials, who time after time did their part to stay true to the core progressive ideals of their party.
All of that changed on Thursday, when I read the roll call for the vote on HR 4038, generically referred to as the Syrian refugees bill with an Orwellian title, the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act. Forty seven Democrats caved to the Republican fear-mongering and gave in to terror. Among the forty seven — there she was — my former boss, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter.
It’s difficult to even begin to encapsulate the feeling of betrayal from someone I always admired deeply. It never surprises me when some Democrats buckle under pressure from conservatives and abandon principles when confronted with any adversity. But, I never thought someone like Congresswoman Slaughter — who stood up against the Bush-Cheney regime of war and torture, and has pushed back against the ill-advised trade deals from her own party’s President — would be that person.
I always thought of Congresswoman Slaughter as someone who stands up as a progressive champion for the underdogs and who’d never lose her moral compass. On Thursday she did.
Her actions are all the more shocking because caving to small-minded xenophobia was a choice that she did not have to make. And no has made that more clear than my other boss in Congress — Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
Yesterday, Senator Reid gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor appealing to his congressional colleagues not to abandon their “principles”:
The United States has a long and proud history of providing refuge to the world’s most vulnerable. That history includes my father-in-law, Israel Goldfarb. He and his family came from Russia. They were refugees, escaping the pogroms.
I have been disgusted in recent days to see some of my Republican colleagues shun the American tradition of displaying compassion to those in need; of sheltering those fleeing death, torture, rape, and oppression. And frankly, I have been disappointed by Republican fear-mongering and bigotry. Apparently, they have learned nothing from history. We cannot repeat the dark days of the 1930s, when many Americans resolved to turn away the helpless refugees fleeing Hitler. Or our imprisoning of innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II, like our late colleague Senator Daniel Inouye and his family. Those mistakes were based on misguided fears of people we did not know. And how many people died because of that unfounded apprehension? I don’t know, but definitely too many.
Senator Reid was not alone in bringing up the dark days of the 1930s. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued this statement on Thursday, sending a clear message to the craven politicians in Congress who didn’t have any sense of history:
Acutely aware of the consequences to Jews who were unable to flee Nazism, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum looks with concern upon the current refugee crisis. While recognizing that security concerns must be fully addressed, we should not turn our backs on the thousands of legitimate refugees.
It sadly comes as no surprise to see the radical “leaders” of the Republican party ignoring that dark history, and stoking fear-mongering and bigotry. The Republicans’ leading Presidential candidates are openly channeling the Third Reich by suggesting special IDs for Muslims in America, and comparing refugees to “rabid dogs.”
But how do you react to the political cowardice of someone like Congresswoman Slaughter losing their perspective on history?
A good place to start is to listen to Vice President Joe Biden, who took the time to answer a reporter’s question about the Syrian refugees, observing, “[O]ne way to make sure that the terrorists win, is for us to begin to change our values.” The Vice President added later in the day that our country is in danger of losing it’s “soul” over the fear-mongering against refugees.
It’s always affirming to see Senator Reid tenaciously fighting the good fight, but I never expected Congresswoman Slaughter to lose her soul.
What Congresswoman Slaughter did was deeply hurtful. I wonder if she realizes how much pain and anguish she and her 46 Democratic colleagues inflicted, not only on refugees who have been desperately trying to escape bloodshed and carnage, but also on hundreds of thousands of innocent patriotic Americans who are being scapegoated for the actions of bloodthirsty, vile terrorists. How much of a punch to the gut it is that she is now ok with treating someone like me or members of my family as less than an American — actually less than a human.
I thought a lot before deciding to publish this post, debating whether it would be worth it to share these feelings.
Congressional staffers — especially those who are fortunate to have great experiences while working on the Hill — tend to be fiercely loyal to their current and former bosses. It’s been years since I worked in Sen. Reid’s office, but engagement on social media continues, with current and former colleagues using the #TeamReid hashtag. Similarly, I have kept in touch with a number of friends I made during my time in Rep. Slaughter’s office.
By publishing this post I may not be welcome back in the circle of “Slaughter alums.” But based on her vote on HR 4038, it seems fair to assume that Congresswoman Slaughter is not really all that interested in welcoming someone who may look or sound like me into this country at all.
That vote represented someone I respected losing her soul, giving in to the worst of our politics and sacrificing her morality and sense of humanity. I hope that by sharing this perspective, she will have the courage to stand up to hate, remember the ideals that make America great, and find that moral compass I admired so much.