Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sen. Jeff Bingaman and My Bread for the World Journey

Speaking at Bread reception
I write these words just days after Sen. Jeff Bingaman announced his decision not to seek re-election in 2012.

It was the early 1990s, and I had just moved to New Mexico a year or two before.  Bread for the World's western region organizer Emily Abbott talked me into attending the National Gathering,  Who could refuse Emily?

I can't say I remember much about the gathering itself, but I certainly  have very strong memories about Lobby Day. Just as hundreds of other activists, I did my duty and made visits to the Capitol Hill offices of my members of Congress.  As expected, I met with aides, but I made sure that the staff knew that our legislators were aware that they were cordially invited to our congressional reception.

So after filling out my reports, I went to the reception and started mingling with fellow Bread activists from around the country.  (I didn't know as many then as I do now!).  As I was walking around the room, a Bread staffer came up frantically to me, and said, "Carlos, please come to the front.  Sen. Bingaman is here asking for you?"  What? Me?   Naturally, I was pleased that my senator would come to the reception to ask for me.  He gave a nice speech and then left.   (That's him up there with then Board president Maria Otero).

As I was walking on Cloud Nine, a Bread staffer (can't remember if it was the same one), comes up to me ans says, "Carlos, we need you.  Rep. Steve Schiff is here asking for you."   Wha?  Two of my legislators came looking for me?   Rep. Schiff didn't come to make a speech.  He came to follow up on a conversation that I had with is aide about the WIC program.  But he did say a few words after some prodding from the Bread staff.

That was a turning point in my ministry as an anti-hunger advocate. I learned that my voice mattered, and that Sen. Bingaman and Rep. Schiff would come to seek me out to let me know that!  Granted, we haven't succeeded since that time to get a New Mexico senator or congressperson to attend our reception.  But if they did, I doubt we would have had the same impact as that one Lobby Day reception.   

How many senators meet directly with constituents?
In subsequent Lobby Day visits to Sen. Bingaman's office, I was pleasantly surprised that he made an effort to be present at many of the meetings with his aides. But as he gained seniority (and committee chairmanships), he was less able to be there.

The legislative aide assigned to me or to my delegation from New Mexico was always someone who had some knowledge and responsibility for the issue I was bringing.  Sen. Bingaman frequently voted with Bread.  In 2008, he cosponsored the Global Poverty Act.  In 2007, he supported most of Bread's provisions related to the Farm Bill.

Sen. Bingaman hasn't left the Senate quite yet, and there are at least two more Lobby Day opportunities for advocacy.  This summer, we'll be coming to his office to ask his support for legislation on foreign aid reform.  I think Sen. Bingaman's appointments secretary Virginia White is expecting my call.  See you in June, Sen. Bingaman!  (Unless, of course, there is Senate Energy Committee meeting on that day). 

Speaking at Bread reception
Even though this post is primarily about Sen. Bingaman, I would also like to take a moment to offer a brief tribute to Rep. Schiff. He made an effort to listen to his constituents, even though his votes weren't always necessarily in line with Bread's legislative goals.  He served four terms until his untimely death of cancer in 1998.  He was replaced by Rep. Heather Wilson and then Rep. Martin Heinrich.

1 comment:

Jon Bulthuis said...

Thank you, Carlos, for your retrospective on the work of Jeff Bingaman on hunger issues over the years. New Mexico will certainly miss his leadership and influence on this, and other social justice issues that face our country and the world, when he leaves office. But I, like you, am thankful for his commitment and work over the years.