Fear and Loathing at the Capitol by Susan Clow
“What people really need is a good listening to.” —Mary Lou Casey
I have always paid attention to the paradox characterized by “You can’t fight city hall” and “One person can make a difference.” This conflict came home to me early in 1997 when I read an article in the Statesman Journal about a bill (SJR 8) that, if passed, would make milk Oregon’s official state beverage. I felt clearly that Oregon didn’t need a state beverage at all and, if there was one, water was the only appropriate choice—not milk.
In the few days I had to prepare testimony against SJR 8 for the Senate public hearing, I learned as much as I could. Legislative staff were wonderful. They were informative, helpful, kind, and patient.
Public hearings are not required but if they are held, the Committees, made up of four to seven senators or representa-tives, can call a public hearing as late as twenty-four hours in advance. This gives people virtually no time at all to prepare testimony unless, of course, you’re a lobbyist or company representative paid to do this sort of thing. For most people, of course, such is not the case.
Committees do not have to listen to all the testimony if time constraints don’t allow, but I was told they try to listen to as much testimony as they can and, importantly, listen to the pro and con testimony equally. I was also told to bring about twenty copies of written information that backs up and restates verbal testimony. It is used for the records and for review.
With this information, I prepared for my day with the Senate Natural Resource Agriculture Committee. I could have approached the rejection of SJR 8 from a cruelty to animals argument, or an environmental concern. Both of these points of view have merit, but I chose the nutritional approach because it is the one I felt I knew the most about.
The morning of the hearing dawned! There were public hearings being held for three bills in the Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee. I decided to go early and listen to the two public hearings preceding SJR 8’s public hearing.
The way the first two public hearings were handled was in total contrast to the way SJR 8 was handled. With some exceptions (going in and out of the room during testimony, etc.), most of the senators paid attention. There were times I felt tension on the committee when a person testified against a bill, but the senators who were present listened and asked questions respectfully. At one point, I saw two people from opposing sides sit together and talk through some of their differences with committee members. The committee promised one man they would hold off voting until they received more information from him and others he said wanted to have some input.
Usually I know better than to let myself get trapped into expectations, but this time I did. After listening to the interchange between the committee and the people testifying on the two bills preceding SJR 8, I started to relax and feel confident that at least I’d be listened to. I was quite unprepared for what happened next.
Around 10:30 a.m., the sixth grade class from Tillamook county, which requested this bill, arrived with teachers, parents, Senator Dukes, and, I think, a representative of the dairy industry. He acted like a high pressure salesman and began passing milk out to the committee members with fervor. The committee members became playful and started joking about having a state cookie to go along with the milk. Already milk was the state beverage in their minds.
The party began. Any resemblance to a public hearing ended. Committee Chairman Bob Kintigh opened the hearing. And I clearly was not invited.
Senator Dukes introduced SJR 8, followed by testimony from four or five school children. The Committee listened patiently and then asked the children questions such as: Do other states have milk for their state beverage?, and How and why did you decide to make milk the state beverage? Then several adults testified in favor of milk.
When the testimony in favor of milk was finished, Committee Chairman Bob Kintigh raised his gavel and brought it within a breath of closing the public hearing. But the gavel didn’t strike. Bill Fisher, Vice-Chairman, drew Senator Kintigh’s attention to the fact that someone else had signed up to speak. It was then that Chairman Kintigh called on me to testify. My knees were shaking. I sensed the committee was in no mood to listen to anyone protesting milk.
I opened my testimony by showing my respect for the school children who had thought of this idea and carried it through to this point. I made it clear that, while I was against milk being a state beverage, I was not interested in taking away individual choices to drink it. The tension I felt in the room was not eased by these conciliatory remarks.
I then presented scientific studies demonstrating the detriments milk has on many people’s health. I was sharing information from a study done on Bantu women and their low incidence of osteoporosis in spite of their low intake of calcium when Senator Dwyer interrupted me. He asked what the Bantu women of Africa had to do with the people of Oregon. He answered his own question by saying it probably had to do with genetic differences. While I feel his question was legitimate, it was his tone of cruel and blatant condescendence that spoke volumes. I felt like he wanted to make me look stupid. But I went on and answered his question anyway in my shaky voice.
When I started sharing another scientific case against osteoporosis, Senator Dwyer once again interrupted me. This time I heard anger in his voice when he asked me if I was going to blame milk for everything. I was able to say no, I knew other things contributed to osteoporosis such as a high protein diet (which milk contributes to), smoking, lack of exercise, etc., but the subject of the hearing was milk, and I wanted to stay focused on that.
I had more information to share. However, between Senator Dwyer’s outright hostility and other senators rolling their eyes and smirking, I felt so unwelcome that I quit testifying.
The open hearing was closed by Chairman Bob Kintigh. He immediately called for the work session on SJR 8 to begin. A work session is a time when the Committee is supposed to review all information heard during the public hearing, read and review any written testimony, which I had done, and discuss open-mindedly the pros and cons before voting. Or so it’s supposed to be.
Instead they took about five minutes to talk about how they felt about milk becoming a state beverage. I heard things like milk is the purest food, and memories of growing up on farms and milking cows. Open-mindedness was not on the agenda that day, so they did a milk toast and voted. Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes. One senator asked the children if they’d thought about working on making milk a national beverage which triggered thumbs up between adults. The meeting was closed.
I was about to leave when Senator Ferrioli came up and shook my hand. He said he was glad I’d testified because it was important for the children to know that, no matter what you believe, there will be opposing views. This seemed too little too late.
That night I wrote a letter and e-mailed it to all seven committee members. I thanked Senator Ferrioli for the kindness he showed toward me and then expressed my feelings about what happened that day.
In a nutshell I’ll tell you what I told them. I am angry and appalled at the example these seven senators set for the Tillamook school children. The children had done a wonderful job of researching, organizing and pursuing this bill. It is an injustice that a healthy real-life experience ended in this sham of a public hearing that morning by seven senators who claim to represent the people. I feel angry about the real lesson the children learned that day—not only do you not have to listen to all sides of an issue, but you can treat those with opposing views disrespectfully.
Only Senator Ferrioli responded to my letter. He called me the next morning. I was at work, but a friend who was staying with me answered the phone and talked to Senator Ferrioli. He told my friend that he’d read the material I submitted. For that I’m happy. He also expressed regret that I’d been treated so poorly during the public hearing and wished he could have done something about it, but he was a new senator. I never heard from him again, even though I returned his call. He was unwilling to put his comments in writing. I feel angry that he knew I was being treated poorly in that senate committee and yet chose to be silent.
In light of all this, I have a question. Why did the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, consisting of Senators Bob Kintigh, Bill Fisher, Bill Dwyer, Gary George, Veral Tarno, Ted Ferrioli, and Thomas Wilde, choose to have a public hearing for SJR 8 in the first place?
If they already knew they were going to pass this bill, and were holding a public hearing simply for the benefit of the school children, then they should all be held accountable for a great injustice to the people of this state. Not only did they waste taxpayers money, they lied.
I’ll admit, I’m an idealist. Being on the receiving end of narrow-minded contempt stings me. The bullying I received during the open public hearing for SJR 8 on February 12, 1997 makes me question the integrity of our legislative body. I don’t believe this is an isolated incident.
I want to know why a committee has an open hearing if they are not willing to listen to all sides of an issue. How can they endorse legislation before they have listened to the pros and cons? Why can’t seven senators sit still and give their full attention to the people they represent in a time that is specifically and clearly designated for that purpose? Why can’t committee members treat taxpaying citizens who testify with respect? I want to know why our senators and representa-tives seem to forget they are the elected servants of the people.
Fundamentally, I believe it is the Senate and House of Representative committees’ responsibility to make testifying a safe experience. I also believe, as our elected officials, it is their job to suspend their own belief systems as much as possible and listen. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? No!
I urge each and every voting citizen to attend a public hearing of the committee that the senator or representative you voted for sits on before you vote again.
As a vegan, Susan Clow has acquired extensive nutritional information in her pursuit of health. She is a tax payer, voter, and a working private citizen living with her family in Salem, Oregon.