Delegate Mark Keam - Virginia's 35th House District

Thoughts on the Virginia Tea Party Convention


On Saturday, October 9, I had a unique opportunity to participate on a panel discussion at the Virginia Tea Party convention held in Richmond.  It was unique in that, it turns out I was the only Democratic official who spoke at the Tea Party convention even though I understand that many elected officials in Virginia were invited.

As a Delegate, I went to this convention to push for one of my legislative priorities, and to hear from fellow Virginians — some of whom I represent in the 35th District — to learn what policy issues they will be advancing in the 2011 legislative session.  Although I did not go there to represent the Democratic Party, I have been criticized by some for providing the Tea Party with "bipartisan" legitimacy by the mere presence of a Democratic elected official there.

With almost 3,000 people attending over the weekend, I doubt that anyone outside of the breakout session noticed my presence or even cared that I was there.  Nevertheless, I will explain below my thoughts about the Tea Party and why I decided to participate.

The panel I attended was hosted by the Americans for Prosperity on the topic of transparency in government.  This was one of several dozen breakout sessions.  Moderated by Ben Marchi from AFP, the other three speakers were State Senator Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg (R-26th District), Delegate Ben Cline of Rockbridge (R-24th District) and Democratic blogger Ben Tribbett of NotLarrySabato.

Due to scheduling issues, I was only able to join the last 20 minutes of the 50 minute session, and therefore, I was unable to engage in a more robust conversation for the entire panel.  But I thought the questions from the audience — including one from my Vienna constituent — and the discussion among the four speakers were productive.

The panel focused on the way the Virginia General Assembly currently operates and the need for reforms to allow better public participation.  Several specific issues were raised, including the potential misuse of fiscal impact statements, the various ways that some legislation are "killed" in subcommittees, the lack of recorded subcommittee votes, and the need for better disclosure of lobbyists activities and gifts.

I spoke about a bill that I worked on during this session with Delegate Jim LeMunyon (R-67th District) with whom I share a border with my district in Fairfax County.  House Bill 778 would require the General Assembly to provide information about legislative votes to be searchable online by the Member's names, in addition to the way votes are currently made available by bill number, committee or key words.  We believe this would provide the easiest, most convenient and common sense way for our constituents to know where we stand on issues.

Today's technology allows this change to be made at no cost to taxpayers and with little additional work required by the Clerks' or technology staff.  Yet, while this bipartisan bill easily moved out of the House of Delegates on a strong majority vote, the State Senate rejected it in the Rules Committee.  Delegate LeMunyon and I had explained the legislation in detail to the members of the Senate subcommittee and full committee to assure them that there would be no fiscal or other impacts on the operations of the Senate.  Nevertheless, the Senate declined to go along with what the House thought was a good government idea.

While many bills in the state legislature fail to move because of partisan or regional differences, we believe this simple transparency measure should not fall victim to any such opposition.  Our bill is designed to shed maximum sunshine on the work of the General Assembly for the benefit of every Virginian.

Because we could not get this measure enacted into law this year, Delegate LeMunyon and I plan to reintroduce the bill again in 2011, and we are currently seeking support from a wide range of Virginia organizations and individuals to help us push it through the next session.

That is why, when I was invited to attend the Virginia Tea Party and to participate on this panel, I was pleased to take advantage of this opportunity to promote our bill.  I am passionate about the related issues of government transparency, accountability and efficiency, and I spoke about making our government work more effectively for taxpayers throughout my campaign in 2009 and in my first year as legislator.

Because of my interest in this area, I thought I could add some value to a panel on the topic, and at the same time, gain some unlikely allies in my cause for good government.

While I fully understand that both the Tea Party and the Americans for Prosperity advocate extremely conservative policy positions and that there are plenty of controversial elements surrounding their work and many of their key leaders, I nevertheless felt this was an appropriate venue for me to attend and try my best to seek common ground, at least in this narrow area of making government work better for all of us.

For the record, I do not support the current efforts of the Tea Party and the Americans for Prosperity to undermine the agenda of the Obama Administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress.  I also do not condone some of the extremist language and hostile rhetoric used by some Tea Party members that attack fellow Americans as somehow being less than patriotic.

As a Democrat, I was an early supporter of Barack Obama's campaign for president and I have also worked in Congress to advance many of the Democratic Party's policies.  While I do not agree with everything that President Obama or this Congress has done over the past two years, I still believe that my party has a better approach to governing than the alternative.  That is why I am proud to continue to support this President and this Congress, including my own Congressman, Gerry Connolly.

That is also why I have campaigned for and have contributed to numerous Democratic candidates, both in Virginia and nationally, who are seeking election this year.  I hope they will go to Washington next year to continue the agenda for change that our nation overwhelmingly voted for in 2008.

Yet, while I want my political party to succeed, I want America to come out of this election cycle stronger and more tolerant than ever before. 

As much as I care about my political party, I love my nation even more.  I am honored and privileged to hold public office in Virginia, and it is my solemn obligation and duty to uphold our state and federal Constitutions.  And as a naturalized American, I never take for granted the freedoms that we enjoy today.  Part of that freedom is our ability to express our views and to engage our fellow citizens in forming our opinions about each other.

I am deeply troubled by the current toxic political environment where partisanship seems to have trumped civility.  Some professional political operatives seem to have turned our nation's future into a simple game where it is no longer about just winning an election, but also about eliminating the opponent.

Both sides seem to talk solely to their own bases and do not even bother to reach out to the middle or to the other side.  It appears that the most extreme voices have dominated the national conversation and left the average American turned off from politics as usual. 

I am particularly saddened to see how many good people on both sides rely on simple caricatures of each other instead of respecting them as people who happen to have differing views.  This has led to extreme partisans using cable news shows and blogs to escalate the political rhetoric to a ridiculous point where, for example, Democrats are often labeled socialists and Republicans/Tea Party activists are often labeled racists, with little factual substantiation.

Last year, I ran for office specifically to bring the voice of average citizens into our government.  I have spent most of my life working to promote civic participation by everyone, especially those who have felt left out traditionally.  I abhor discrimination of all forms and my life's work has been to bring people of all backgrounds and viewpoints together to work on common goals.

That is why, although many of my colleagues in the Democratic Party have declined to recognize, acknowledge or engage the Tea Party for fear that they may "legitimize" this movement, I have decided to take a different approach.  I believe that before I form my own opinion about anyone or any group, I owe it to that person or that group for me to find out for myself.

After spending a couple of hours at the Tea Party convention on Saturday and having participated on an on-the-record dialogue with many of their activists, I have learned a lot more about who they are and what they stand for.  As a result, I believe I am now better educated and can speak with personal knowledge and perhaps a bit more authority about this movement than those who decide to ignore this group altogether.

For example, I agree with the sentiments expressed by many Tea Party activists that we should be prudent with government spending so that we can ensure a stronger debt-free nation for future Americans.  Who can disagree with fiscal responsibility and more freedom for our children?  But I strongly disagree with their solutions when some of the Tea Party leaders propose to arbitrarily eliminate public programs and agencies in the name of attacking big government.

And while I believe in the fundamental bedrock principles of our Constitution and the limitations it places on government, I also strongly disagree with some in the Tea Party whose narrow views of federalism reflect arguments from past centuries when our nation was not so diverse and when the call for states' rights was sometimes used to divide our society.

I learned a lot by personally attending the Tea Party convention, and I believe I am better able to do my job as Delegate by taking into account the views of many of my constituents who align themselves with this movement.  I wished more of my Democratic colleagues were there to engage this group. 

Likewise, I welcome more conservatives, Republicans and Tea Party members to engage individuals and organizations in the progressive movement so that we can have a grown up dialogue about our views and differences instead of solely relying on stereotypes and personal attacks.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and criticisms.  Please feel free to call or email me with any questions you might have, or leave your comments below.

Thanks, Mark Keam

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