Eight former Congress members talked to students and alumni about the importance of political activism among young people this past Friday, March 16. The panelists answered questions about their own experiences running for Congress and the current state of politics, and discussed their personal views on corruption in the electoral process.
The panel was called the "ReFormers Caucus" and was organized by Issue One and Penn Law School, where the event took place. Issue One is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to political reform and government ethics.
The panelists were Ambassador Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.), Rep. Marjorie Margolies (D-Pa.), Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.), Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), and Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.).
Roemer spoke about the need for university students to take leadership in places they want to see change, noting that only 16 percent of millennials voted in the last election.
Roemer added that he noticed that political divides start at the campus level, saying that many college campuses have Democrat and Republican parties that stay separate rather than meeting to debate and respect each other’s views.
“If that does not start happening at your level, the graduate or undergraduate level, this division that you talk about is not going to be conquered by Congress,” he said. “Imagine if the founders had tweeted all the time, and Jefferson and Adams had not exchanged these extraordinary letters that they wrote each other,” he said.
Attendee Molly Sinderbrand, who works at the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, said the panel was very instructive about how to influence change. “I understood that the ways we need to reform government are not really structural, they’re social.”
The representatives identified some problems in politics that need improvement. Shuler detailed the lack of propriety and communication among congressmen, while Roemer noted competitive campaign finances that prevent people "from even considering putting their hat in the ring. Both agreed that constituents, especially young ones, need to hold government officials accountable for these issues.
Representatives also spoke about the difficulties women face when running for congress. Margolies joked that, “The number one fear of women worldwide is public speaking. The number five is death."
Schneider agreed. “Unfortunately, women have to be asked three times to run for congress. We do not have the self-confidence.” To young women looking to enter politics, she encouraged them to look for insights from women mentors like herself.
The panelists stayed after the panel to speak to students, urging them to participate in politics.
Schneider told the Daily Pennsylvanian that she would love to see students take action against corruption in politics. Penn students should go to chapters of local media such as ABC and CBS and have them pledge not to air political advertisements which do not fully disclose their source of funding, she said. According to Schneider, students also should attend rallies and town meetings and ask candidates, “Would you pledge not to take money from the NRA?”
Wamp added that a generation shift is required to create change. “I have more faith in your generation than I have in mine. I am the end of the Baby boomers, but we made a mess of it. We are too ideological and too stubborn. I am hoping your generation is the hero generation.”
Meredith McGehee, executive director at Issue One, said she was very pleased with the panel.
“People who listened to it found out we had people across very deep ideological chasms, and yet they all came together today to focus on solutions, not just to complain, but rather to find where are the places where we can start making a difference,” she said.