If you spend time on social media, you may have seen me last week post pictures of my time in the nation’s capital. I was fortunate enough to be included with a group of around 60 folks from Commerce Lexington in their annual advocacy event, thanks to some corporate sponsors and the financial support of KCTCS. Organizers brought together the Kentucky Congressional delegation, as well as other public and private sector policy experts, to present the current national agenda, forecast the outcome of the political issues of paramount interest to the business community and answer questions from constituents in the central region of the state.
Like any meeting that has a political element, at times it was both real and surreal. In less than two full days, we heard from no fewer than 14 separate presenters, anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes each. It does not get much more real than that. Then again, Jane Fonda, who was identified as either famous or infamous by members of our contingent, stayed in our hotel and Sen. Bernie Sanders and I collided in the airport. Literally. (And whether you like him or not politically, I will forever maintain that the guy looks like an elderly Kramer from Seinfeld – wild eyes, unkempt hair, disheveled clothing, and “the jimmy legs.”) So, surreal at times, too. But like any great event, I came away with a deeper understanding of the issues. Allow me, then, to briefly share what I learned in Washington, D.C.
First, it became clear that the concerns and needs of the various regions within the commonwealth, whether eastern, central or western Kentucky – and even bordering states – are much more similar than different. I have lived in our state less than four years, so I do not claim to be an expert on all things Kentucky. Not yet. However, it has been reiterated to me on multiple occasions that people in eastern Kentucky are different than those who live in the (fill-in-the-blank) region of the state. And I will grant that there are absolutely some unique aspects about our counties and people. What I would submit to you, though, is that the most important issues to Madison, Clark, Woodford and Fayette counties are also among the most important to Harrison, Mason, Montgomery and Rowan counties. The opioid epidemic and how to end the cycle of abuse; the importance of free trade and the impact of tariffs on the economy, in Kentucky and abroad; the need for immigration reform and the expansion of the H2B VISA program for migrant workers; the reauthorization of the Perkins Career-Technical Educational Act and continuation of resources for post-secondary education to educate Kentucky’s workforce; and the passage of legislation to support the production of industrial hemp, as an option for agricultural interests still seeing to overcome the challenge to tobacco cultivation. I could list many more but please know, the issues which matter to a part of Kentucky matter to ALL of Kentucky.
Secondly, the Kentucky legislative delegation, especially our local representatives, are working diligently on behalf of you and me. Mind you, I am not making a political statement in support of a party or platform. Instead, I am commenting on effort, responsiveness and commitment. You may well disagree with their agendas or positions on a specific issue; not only is that your right, I might well agree with you. But if you think that these elected officials and their staffs are not working feverishly to serve the Commonwealth, I would respectfully have to disagree. Without naming names, I witnessed, simply by chance, one of our representatives appear before our group and then proceed to run back for a floor vote and office hours – only to juggle three more appointments that evening, all of which were no less than an hour. From his staff, I learned his family was also in town and he was hoping to spend a few minutes with them. Call me sympathetic but I know how hard it is to be torn between commitments. My schedule can be brutal. Theirs is downright unforgiving. Personally, I do not want their job – neither do you, I would fathom a guess. So argue about the appropriateness of their position. Vote against them in a future election, if you so choose. But do not doubt that they are laboring at an often overwhelming job, on behalf of the people of Kentucky.
Finally, and it relates back somewhat to the previous item, I learned that we need more ideologues. You read that correctly. One of the issues that was raised by our group with every single elected official addressed the rancor and “gridlock” in Washington between parties and politicians. What Americans claim to want is cooperation and collegiality within the political process. Yet, meeting with our congressional leaders, people openly cheered for those with whom they agreed and were very reserved toward those with whom they disagreed. (This is a personal indictment as well.) The trip reinforced my assessment that people want civility toward themselves and those of like-mind – not for all. It comes down to partisanship. Whether Democrat or Republican, most are more concerned about politics than particulars. Case and point, the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court; both “sides” have been gearing up for a fight, even before the candidate was announced. That is not ideology. It is about political affiliation. If we want to seriously change the culture, we need more public servants who are committed to specific ideals and not to conventional party platforms. There are always going to be a handful of convictions/values on which we cannot compromise but many issues are political, not moral. True ideologues can work with others – true partisans cannot.
Visiting the nation’s capital is always exciting. I encourage you to make the journey if the opportunity presents itself. Not just to see the White House or the Lincoln Memorial but to learn more about democracy in action. Specifically, to paraphrase Mohandas Gandhi, if you want to see change, BE the change that you wish to see. My experience reminded me that above all else, I am blessed to live in Kentucky and the United States of America.
Dr. Stephen Vacik is President and CEO of Maysville Community and Technical College.