On average, Idaho legislators, each representing one of 35 districts in a state of about 1.7 million people, have about 49,000 constituents. No legislator, however conscientious, can know them all.
In practice, though, they – and not just legislators but most public officials – only really know a thin slice of their constituents. Some weeks ago I helped canvass – drop off campaign information – several neighborhoods for a local ballot issue in my small town of 2,000 people. Many of those people felt their city hall was remote from them, distant and out of touch. This isn’t physical distance: Many of them lived within a three-minute walk of the building where council meetings are held.
Elected officials, like most of us, tend to congregate among people we know and who are like us. The less similar to us, the less we are likely to know other people, and the more out of touch we are. State legislators, to take one example, know their friends and other social connections, their political base, sometimes their adversaries and activists of various types. But most people in their districts, most of the 49,000 or so, are outside those orbits.
And some are well outside.
On occasion an elected official tries to break through that bubble. One who did recently was state Representative Mark Nye of Pocatello, and he wrote about the experience.
His account started with a visit to the Pocatello community action center, a place he had been involved in setting up years ago, and which offers help to the homeless – as it can. Its capacities are limited, and the needs tend to far outdistance them.
That observation prompted Nye to explore further – to look into the world of the homeless in Pocatello.
“I learned where the homeless can get a hot meal,” he wrote. “One place is a hall near Poky High. I saw poor people lined up there waiting for the doors to open. I watched and wondered where they came from and how this could be happening in our city. I volunteered to wash dishes and watch. I did this for a couple of weeks, but this wasn’t enough. Sixty-eight people were needing a meal and there were some children. One women was tall, with stringy hair, wild eyes and skinny like a stick. Her clothes were a mess and she wasn’t the only one like this. It was cold outside and some had coats — ratty coats. Some had no coats.”
He explored beyond that, taking a place in the group. “The next week, I put on my old Levi’s, a black T-shirt and old baseball cap and drove down to the place. I hid my car blocks away and went to the front door early to wait. About 18 people were already there. They were standing around, some on the stairs, some on the curb, some alone and in small groups. There was little talk. I was afraid what they might do to me if I was recognized. But I had learned the walk. The walk was a slow shuffle, with head bent down and no eye contact. We waited for the door to open. I felt conspicuous but no one was watching. I was just another one standing there.”
Nye developed several observations out of all this, but one of the most significant is also one of the most obvious: These people are not numbers, not statistics, and not even just people, but also constituents. Nye recognized that he held a responsibility to them in the same way he does to the people he ordinarily meets and works with, the people who show up at the Statehouse as lobbyists or that he meets at a political gathering.
It’s an important point. The 49,000 include not only friends and family, supporters and activists and even opponents. They also include a lot of people many of us actually try not to see. It takes some effort to see them. But that’s what being a public servant should entail.