Every year Denison University tries to foster political dialogue on campus with their Lugar Program. The Lugar Program was started by former United States Senator Richard Lugar ‘54. This year, the Lugar Program partnered with Congress To Campus, which is an organization that brings former members of Congress to college campuses across the United States with the aim of inspiring students and provide inspiration that will lead to greater democratic participation; whether it is in the arena of public service or something as simple as voting.
This year, Denison hosted former Representatives Peter Kostmayer (D-PA) and Jim Kolbe (R-AZ). Throughout the two days on campus, the former Congressmen went to numerous classes and spoke to students as well as had a dinner with students and faculty affiliated in the Lugar Program. The Denisonian was lucky enough to be able to have a sit down interview with the Congressmen and were able to understand exactly what it takes to be a member of Congress today and how American politics is changing in the era of the Trump presidency.
Former Congressman Peter Kostmayer served the 8th district of Pennsylvania from 1977-1981, and again from 1983-1993. During his time in Congress, he sponsored 158 pieces of legislation, of which 7 were enacted into law. Currently retired from Congress, he is the CEO of Citizens Committee of New York City, a nonprofit that works to assist low income areas of New York to build stronger communities and to help raise those areas out of poverty.
Former Representative. Jim Kolbe served the 5th District of Arizona from 1985-2002, and the 8th district (the same district rezoned) from 2003-2006. Representative Kolbe was regarded as a moderate Republican and was the primary sponsor on 17 pieces of enacted legislation. Representative Kolbe served on the House Appropriations Committee for 20 years, was the Chairman of the Treasury, Post Office and Related Agencies subcommittee for four years, and was also the Chairman of Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Agencies for his final six years in office. Rep. Kolbe currently serves as a Senior Transatlantic Fellow for the German Marshall Fund of the United States and advises on foreign trade issues and how effective U.S. assistance to foreign aid is.
The Denisonian was able to ask the former politicians about what exactly it took to get into office. Both Congressmen agreed that it took time, money, and patience in order to get elected into office. Representative Kolbe said that he “started running in high school.” He worked as a Page in the Arizona state legislature and continually acquired new friends and connections and used them to run for Congress and it ultimately paid off. Both former Representatives agree that there is no one way to truly get involved in politics. Representative Kostmayer claims that “it doesn’t matter what you major in in college, all you need to do is be a good salesman and have the proper connections to run. Politics isn’t for everyone.” They both agreed that what truly was needed was the commitment to truly run for office.
Representative Kostmayer highlighted some of the downsides of being in Congress. “When you’re in Congress, many newly elected Representatives don’t understand the turmoil it causes for your home life. People are trying to raise a family but are living in Washington, which is very expensive, and then have to go back home for only the weekends to see their family in another home! Congressmen are simply not paid enough and even though they are looked down upon and have terrible approval ratings, most really put a lot of their own livelihoods on the line to serve the people.”
Both Congressmen agreed that in today’s polarized country, the really only way to win a basic Congressional district is to place yourself as far from the center as possible. Representative Kolbe said “Real Democrat versus Republican elections don’t happen anymore besides the Presidency. Every district is already set on whether or not it is Left or Right, due to Gerrymandering. The problem that candidates run into is that in order to win the primary, they have to make themselves look so far into their party to win over all the voters. This leads to extremely polarized Congressmen, and therefore a polarized Congress.”
The Congressmen however, were reluctant to admit that today’s society is much more polarized and divisive than normal. Representative Kolbe said, “if you look throughout American history, we’ve always been polarized! Just because World War II was a time of rallying around the flag and being dominant doesn’t mean we should be using that as the “norm.” Look at reconstruction. The United States literally had murders because of polarization. We’ve always been polarized, the only difference is the people are embracing it.” Representative Kostmayer agreed.
Both Congressmen were in agreement that in order to truly fight polarization, it takes us, the future of the country, to really talk about the issues plaguing our nation and the world and be civil and accepting of one another. It takes civic deliberation and allowing for you to be wrong in your own views. Because at the end of the day, Republicans and Democrats “just want to make this country better.”