Karen Rubin, News & Photo Features
The first thing I noticed on the bus from Christopher Morley Park in Roslyn, Long Island enroute to the Capitol Building in Washington DC to greet Tom Suozzi as a freshman Congressman representing Long Island, was how diverse our group was. This was even more pronounced when we gathered together with more than 100 for a reception.
Suozzi, a Democrat, moments after being officially sworn in on the House floor by reelected Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), noted as much himself in his good-natured way, pointing to the Pakistanis, the Indians (Sikhs, Hindus), Chinese, Jews, Latinos, Catholics, Italians., Irish, Polish, African-Americans (really too many to list) just in that tiny room.
The observation was even more poignant after we had been treated to a tour of the Capitol Building, which begins with a film, “Out of One, Many” – E Pluribus Unum, the nation’s motto. The theme of the movie was how the Congress is organized to bring together representatives of a broad mosaic of Americans with different beliefs and perspectives, and how (and this is the part I thought was a quaint notion if ever it were true), Congress was designed for compromise. “Congress is where we can find common ground.”
Clearly the filmmakers and the nation’s founders, did not take into account the extreme partisanship that has taken hold of Washington since 1994, with Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America (yes I know it was titled, “Contract for America.”), before the speaker had to resign in disgrace (and pop up again in the Donald Trump campaign).
But Tom Suozzi campaigned on his intention and his ability to bridge the divide, to work with Republicans and Democrats to forge consensus. And he repeated that pledge in remarks to the well-wishers who crammed the room in the Cannon House office building.
“With all the differences that different people have, with all our different backgrounds, faiths, traditions, cultures, foods, customs, most of what we believe in is all the same,” he declared. “There are some things that divide us, but 99% of what we all believe in is all the same. And for me, that comes down to ‘Love thy neighbor.’ And love thy neighbor is about trying to help other people to make the world a better place to live in.
“Politics is the vehicle by which we try to do that in our country. It’s a wonderful tradition. It’s one of the most unique places in the world that has that tradition. And you being here to support me gives me the strength, and the courage and the ability to have this wonderful, unique opportunity that has only been shared by a few people throughout the whole course of history of the United States of America.”
He went back to a speech that he said he used to give all the time, but hadn’t during his campaign for Congress. “It’s the speech my grandfather used to give to the new couples.
“Life is like a marriage, is like a long journey with a lot of ups and a lot of downs. But that’s okay, because in life, you can’t have a rose without the thorns. You can’t have the beautiful things in life without the suffering as well, you couldn’t appreciate the good things in life without the tough times as well.
“We see things in newspapers, on TV, we see things happening in our communities, and we have things happening in our families that are so difficult and tragic.
“But today we are celebrating the roses of life.. the best part of life, with friends and family and Americans all get together to say, listen, Let’s work together to make things better for everyone, because there are too many problems we face.
“As Democrats and Republicans they all want to help the same people – there are too many people poor people, too many addicted to drugs, too many wars going on, too many refugees, too many worrying about losing health care, too many problems in the world, too much suffering.
“But if we all work together, and we remember the values that we all share among all faiths, and all our traditions, and all the things we all believe in, then we can solve any problem in the world and with your help, we can do it.”
Ryan, Pelosi Make Pledges
Just minutes earlier on the floor of the House when he was handed the gavel and before issuing the oath to Suozzi and the other Congressmembers, Speaker Ryan had made the same appeal to work together, though it remains to be seen whether it was just the rhetorical flourish of the historic moment, or to opportunistically chide Democrats not to do to Donald Trump what the Republicans did to Barack Obama, when Republicans declared on his first day that their primary mission, their Job #1, instead of saving jobs, homes, health care, college funds and retirement savings, was to make Obama a failed president (Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, newly elected Minority Leader, said that Democrats would look for compromise and to work with Trump and the Republicans on those issues that did not involve abandoning the party’s values).
We were able to watch Ryan and the swearing in on a TV monitor, and hear Ryan say, “There’s no sense of foreboding today. There’s only a sense of potential… But there’s another reason for optimism…Just months ago, our country held a great, electoral contest…. The clash of opinions . . . the hue and cry of campaigns . . . the rancor and the dissension . . . in the end, they all dissolve in the silent and peaceful transfer of power.
“And so in just a few weeks’ time we will welcome a new president . . . who offers us yet another new beginning—a new chance to work toward that more perfect union.
“For all our arguments and all our differences, we are all united by a deep, abiding love of our country. It is the slender but sturdy thread that holds us together. We always forget about it. But it has never failed us. That is why when the votes are counted and the people have spoken, all of us accept the verdict. We come back from the campaign trail. We put away the yard signs. And today, as one body, we pledge allegiance to one flag: the red, white, and blue.
“I don’t care what your party is. Find one person in this House who doesn’t want the best for America. Find one person who doesn’t want to help the unemployed, or care for the sick, or educate the young, or honor our troops. Who here among us does not want to open wide the door to opportunity? Who here among us does not want every American—of every creed and every color—to cross the threshold? You can’t find one person—not a one. And that is a true cause for celebration.
“That being said, this is no time to rest on our laurels, but to redouble our efforts. It’s no secret that millions of Americans across the country are deeply dissatisfied with their current situation. They’ve looked to Washington for leadership, and all they’ve gotten is condescension. For years, they’ve suffered quietly—amid shuttered factories and shattered lives. But now they’ve let out a great roar. Now, we, their elected representatives, must listen. And so I want to say to the American people, “We hear you. We will do right by you. And we will deliver.”
“It is not enough to say that the condition of your birth should not determine the outcome of your life—no matter how much we mean it. In a few years’ time, I hope people will say of the 115th Congress that we didn’t just pay lip service to this beautiful American Idea; we made it a reality. We are not here to be; we are here to do. We are here to improve people’s lives. Grow our economy. Keep us safe. Improve our health care and our infrastructure. Fight poverty. Restore self-government. We’ve got our work cut out for us. And as your speaker, I intend to keep this place running at full speed.”
In a statement that suggests what kind of challenge Suozzi will face as a newly minted Congressman, Ryan promised to let the Minority party have a voice (but apparently, no actual say).
“And so to the minority, I want to say, ‘We’ve never shied away from our disagreements. And I do not expect anyone to do so now. But however bright of a contrast we draw between us, it must never blind us to the common ground we share. We must never shy away from making progress for the American people, wherever we can. And so, as your speaker, I promise to uphold the rights of the minority. I promise to hear you out, and let you have your say. If I had to sum up my approach, it would be, ‘Agreement whenever possible, but at all times respect.’
“And to the majority, especially to our returning members, I want to say, ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ This is the kind of thing that most of us only dream about. I know—because I used to dream about it. The people have given us unified government. And it wasn’t because they were feeling generous. It’s because they wanted results. How could we live with ourselves if we let them down? How could we let ourselves down? I have for many months been asking our members to raise their gaze and aim high. Now, let us not be timid, but rather reach for that brighter horizon.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) also called for working on behalf of the American people, but she also declared, “We will stand our ground.”
“In that spirit, in order to meet the needs of the American people, House Democrats pledge to seek common ground wherever we can: To forge a bipartisan path forward on job-creating infrastructure, to make taxes and foreign trade fair to American workers, to help Americans balance work and family life, and to ‘drain the swamp’ of big money from our campaigns, all of these provisions, President-elect Trump has pledged.
“We will seek common ground. But we will stand our ground wherever in good conscience we must.
“If there is an attempt to destroy the guarantee of Medicare, harm [Medicaid], Social Security, or the Affordable Care Act, Democrats will stand our ground.
“If there is an assault on clean air and clean water; on civil rights, women’s rights, or LGBT rights; if DREAMers and their immigrant families face the nightmare of deportation, Democrats will stand our ground.
“And if there is an attempt to silence our voices for common sense gun violence prevention, with Gabby Giffords here in the chamber as our witness — Democrats will stand our ground.”
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