What I Learned From Shadowing My State Representative For A Day

What I Learned From Shadowing My State Representative For A Day

I feel more in touch with the political process than I ever could've hoped.

Last week, thanks to the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics and the Elsie Hillman Civic Forum, I was able to participate with their annual Legislator for a Day program, a part of Pitt Day in Harrisburg. With this opportunity, I was able to shadow a state legislator at the Pennsylvania capitol for a whole day and see politics and policy making in action. As someone who wants to work in government, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to spend a day in an environment similar to one in which I would be working later in life.

I was doubly blessed: I was able to shadow my own representative, Rep. Bryan Barbin! I spent the day following him to committee meetings, the House session, the Democratic caucus, and meetings with outside groups. We were told that we were coming to be passive observers and not make judgements in the moment. After reflecting on my time in Harrisburg, here's what I've learned:

Your voice after the election matters.

All of the legislators I spoke to said something very similar: they were pushing legislation because it benefits their constituents. Their constituents asked, so they were going to try and deliver. Freshman representative Maureen Madden specifically said something very interesting: her first 100 days in office are spent learning about and listening to the needs of the communities she represents in order to better understand what she needs to do while in office to help them. When you call or send a letter to your state representative, it matters, and they listen.

The "politics of policymaking" is sticky business.

As much as legislators want to help (and do help!) their constituents, at the end of the day, it's still political. When you think about partisanism, political factions, and most tensions in government, it's due to politics, not policy. The policy, whether it's good or bad, is subject to politics, which is where problems start to come into play. Legislators must work in the delicate balance between what their constituents want, what lobbyists want (which isn't always bad - often, lobbyists are simply activist groups looking to help), and what is feasible in terms of the budget. It's a political game, and some players are better than others.

State representatives are very in touch with their districts.

Since Rep. Barbin and I are from the same area, we talked a lot about things happening in and around town, and he was incredibly knowledgeable about just about everything happening in Johnstown and at Pitt-Johnstown. He also comes back to Johnstown periodically while working in Harrisburg. Rep. Barbin is very in touch with his district and understands its needs (as do all of the other representatives - see point one). All legislators understand that in order to do their job to the best of their abilities, they must keep in touch with their constituents.

Homework is involved.

Rep. Barbin had two meetings with outside groups the day I was there, but the work started well before the meetings. He got all of the information he could about the groups, the people representing them that day, and the reasons they were coming in. He wanted to know as much as possible before these groups ever stepped foot in the door because he needed these meetings to be quick and concise - no time for asking basic questions once the meeting began.

Teamwork is essential.

In Rep. Barbin's office, he had an executive director (essentially his chief-of-staff) and a secretary. The three of them worked together to research groups coming in, put together the legislation going into the House from their committee (Rep. Barbin is the head of the Game & Fish Committee), and many other things. Most people think that government officials work and make decisions on their own, and that anything they do is solely because of them (or their "fault," as most people say about government). But nothing could be farther from the truth - the staff is just as important as the legislator themself.

The West Wing "walk and talk" is real.

In case you were wondering.

My day at the Capitol taught me a lot about politics and policymaking, and that knowledge and this experience will be invaluable as I start my career in government and public policy. I have a better working understanding of policymaking in practice, which is better than anything I ever could've learned in a textbook or in a lecture hall. I feel more in touch with the political process than I ever could've hoped.

(Thanks to the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics and the Elsie Hillman Civic Forum for taking a chance and bringing a regional campus student with you for Legislator for a Day, thanks to the incredible Pitt students I met on the trip for being so wonderful, thanks to Megan Soltesz for coordinating the day in Harrisburg and my strange and arrival and departure, and a huge thank you to Rep. Bryan Barbin for letting me follow him around for the day! I learned more than I ever thought I could, thank you for letting me be a part of your day! And vote Bryan Barbin for Commonwealth Court!)

Want to make your voice heard? Apply for our team today at https://muse.theodysseyonline.com/apply!

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A New Refugee Crisis Is Brewing, And It Will Start In South Africa

White South African farmers are to be forced off their land by the government.

A lot has been going on in South Africa recently. You may not have heard of any of it though, as the countries issues are apparently not much of a concern for American media. What I am talking about is the planned, legal, massive expropriation of farmlands owned by white South Africans.

The action has been officially sanctioned by South Africa’s new president, Cyril Ramaphosa. The reasoning for the action lies in the history of the nation itself. White settlers first arrived in the southernmost country in Africa in the 1650’s. After achieving freedom from Britain and official nationhood, a Jim Crow-esque system of racial inequality was established to ensure white-minority dominance over the region. Apartheid, as it was called, ended in 1994 and a black-majority rule was established under the African National Congress party. As such, most of the productive farmland still lay in the hands of old white South African families.

The new president intends to rectify this in a reckless move. All white farmland is slated to be taken by the state and redistributed to black families. This will most likely devastate the country’s economy and severely hurt their chances of staving off the wide-scale droughts that are on their way. One only needs to look to Zimbabwe for proof of these undesirable outcomes. That country’s government tried the same policies against their white farmers years ago. After failed crops, poor management, and major losses for the economy the new government their recently invited all former white farmers to return to their homes. I don’t understand how South Africa cannot learn from Zimbabwe’s mistake.

I understand the reasoning behind it. Centuries under a colonial yoke would make anyone hate their former oppressors. That is the key word, however, former. The current white population of South Africa was born into a system, just like every other human. They live their lives out objectively within that system. Violence does not recompense violence, and the move will surely lead to violence. Ever since the end of apartheid black-on-white violence has steadily increased anyway, with many attacks occurring on farms. Some estimates now put the toll at more than one white South African murdered per week.

If this plan is followed through with, the world will be faced with yet another massive refugee crisis. Tens of thousands will be displaced, and many thousands more will most likely seek refugee status to escape from the prejudice and hatred that they now face in their own country. Thankfully, Australia has a plan in the works to implement a fast-track visa program for displaced South Africans.

Regardless of race, religion, history, whatever, all people deserve to have the rights to pursue happiness and live in peace. This situation is no different.

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Why I Support Walkouts for Gun Control

Our lives are more important.

On Thursday March 15, students from high schools and colleges nationwide arranged a walkout in protest of the lack of stricter gun regulations. I participated in at my school because I believe that we need to enact more stringent gun regulations because our current policies are failing. There should not be this many mass shootings, and children should not be dying from gun violence. In the United States, we have had more mass shooters than any other country. Thoughts and prayers for the victims are not going to make that number go down; policy changes will. I support students walking out of their classrooms because they realize that their lives and their education are more important than someone’s second amendment rights.

Whenever the gun control debate comes up after a mass shooting, we are always told not to get political and that we should only offer thoughts and prayers as a sign of respect for the victims. No, policy changes that make it harder for anyone to obtain a gun in the United States is the ultimate sign of respect for the victims. Policy changes show that we respect the victims enough that we do not want to create more. I think the most tragic shootings are the ones that happen at schools such as Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Stoneman Douglas because these children were at school to get an education and their lives were cut short. We have our priorities backward because we should value a child’s education and life above the ability to easily get a gun. Arming teachers is not the solution because it only creates an environment where students feel unsafe and the teachers may not be able to handle the responsibility of carrying a gun. When your second amendment rights start to interfere with an individual’s right to life we must do something.

Gun control needs to happen, and gun control measures have been useful in countries such as Japan and Australia. Additionally, we need to start changing our mindset about what it means to be an American citizen and what it means to be a man in American society. In our country, guns are tied to being a proud American. However, this cultural mindset has become toxic because we ignore those who lost their lives in mass shootings. We need to stop equating caring about the lives of others with being a bad American. You are an evil American if you choose to ignore how exercising the second amendment affects other people. Our Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution in 1789, and our world has changed drastically since then. Since our world has changed drastically, we need to start viewing owning a gun as a privilege, not a right because we have normalized gun violence for too long.

I am glad to see students walk out of their classrooms and stand up not only for their rights but also stand up for what they believe. To those administrators who attempted to prevent students from doing so, shame on you because your students have the right to peaceful protest. Do not stop them from doing so because you disagree with their political beliefs, instead encourage them to protest because they need to be able to advocate for themselves throughout their lives.

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