My partner Carol's favorite legislator has got to be Lenore Barrett. Carol, like some Idahoans, tunes in to the IPTV webcast of House floor debate every day and plays it in the back ground as she works. If the debate sounds interesting she might even watch the video for a bit. http://www.idahoptv.org/leglive/ She always tunes in when Lenore debates. I've long thought Lenore could be a champion slam poet. As a former slam poet myself and one who went to the Slam Nationals in Chicago with a team of other poets from Boise a few years back, I'd know. Slam poetry is performance poetry. Some people have a style of delivery that would make the phone book sound interesting. Others just have a way with words. Yet others have a way with metaphors that makes for outrageous content. Lenore is one of those. She is legendary for the wild images she evokes in floor debate and even in committee. She'll pencil something down, leaning back in her seat, pursing her lips and contemplating the ceiling to find the next line or rhyme.
Today's debate in Rev and Tax was not particularly poetic but she did make a statement that spoke volumes about our state. Lynn Tominaga was presenting a bill on irrigation water and noted that some who opposed the bill simply don't trust the city council to decide who should be exempted from the tax we were debating. He noted further that these people just didn't seem to trust government.
Lenore, with her usual flair raised her hand and the Chairman, sitting next to her, leaned back and let her speak.
"I don't trust government either, babe," she said with some gravity. And on raged the debate about who should pay the tax and when and who should be exempted.
Now further disclosure is probably necessary at this point. I in fact grew up in Custer County in Lenore's home district #35. It is the largest legislative district in the state. It encompasses several wilderness areas, miles ad miles of national forest, national recreation areas, bureau of land management lands and then too, little threads of habitation along rivers and canyon bottoms and farmed valleys between the mountains. It is the home of the anti-environment and anti-government militias of the late 80s. I grew up hearing heated discussion about government and its evils when we went to gas up at the Clayton Mercantile.
I've got to say that from Clayton, Idaho government sure seems far away and abstract. It might just be embodied by a property tax tax notice or the IRS. It might be a law you don't like or a cop that gives you a speeding ticket. But as with anything we don't know personally, the animosities sure can grow when you don't goverment meet face to face.
I think about government and my own relationship to it. I worked for the forest service for 7 years outside Challis, Lenore's hometown. I embodied government to people who saw me inspecting their outfitter camps as an intrusion into a way of life and a business they had run the same way for decades long before the area was designated wilderness. I think of my feelings toward government as a gay person and how disenfranchised I've felt and how disrespected and unvalued I've felt as I faced the hostile laws and lack of appreciation for what it is like to belong to a group of people who are sometimes killed just for who we are. What kind of government would not care? Would not do all it could to keep young people from being beaten and fired from jobs when we work so hard and just want to be left to make a living and live our lives in peace.
Lenore's point was about taxes. I think it cuts to the heart of it as well as anything. Do we see government as being made up of people with values like ours? Is government a vast majority which sees us as an insignificant blip on a screen? Will it look out for our unique concerns or steam roll over us without a second thought?
Maybe it is my job as a legislator to make sure to put a face on government. We as elected officials have to do more than wait for people to contact us to say when something is wrong. By that time I think the damage is often done. It is all of our job to ensure that government is in part made up of people from diverse backgrounds who set policy having walked in the shoes of more than just a privileged few.
We will all trust government better if we see it as made up of people like ourselves. Helen Chenoweth was not elected on a fluke. She and Lenore Barrett represent a part of Idaho that does see black helicopters in the rain clouds and can not begin to fathom why it takes so much tax money to sustain the infrastructure of protections, facilities, services, relief and communication required to cobble together a nation like ours. We all shudder at "trust us." If we picture a faceless government above our heads, it might all seem pretty foreign to us. We might still see its interests as alien and its intentions as potentially hostile.