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* * The courage of convictions

“Just showing up isn’t that impressive; he works for those people,” deadpanned late night TV talk show host Stephen Colbert, speaking about Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who on Wednesday, February 21 held a town hall mass meeting, attended by about 7000 people, including many victims of the latest American massacre at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Maybe showing up isn’t that impressive to Colbert, but Rubio showed far more valor than our own congressman Morgan Griffith could muster the following night, as he was conspicuously absent at a similar, if far smaller, town hall meeting in Blacksburg.

To say that Rubio has a cozy relationship with the NRA is a massive understatement. As of last October, the NRA had bolstered Rubio’s campaign war chest by over $3.3 million. We can assume the NRA does not lavish that kind of money frivolously; they know what they’re buying.

I watched much of the event, and each speaker was more compelling than the one before. A teen boy whose best friend was annihilated openly wept as he implored the Senator to act. The father of a slain 14-year old daughter told the senator, “Your comments this week and those of our president have been pathetically weak.” A survivor of the shooting asked Rubio, “Can you tell me you won’t accept a single donation from the NRA?” Rubio, rather than giving a definitive answer, skirted around the issue and said, “People buy into my agenda and I do support the Second Amendment.” And then said it was fine if the NRA wants to flood him with donations, and he prefers to keep their money. Hey, a man’s got to win his elections, eh?

But here’s the thing; as hostile an audience as I’m sure Rubio expected and then got, he showed up. Apparently our own congressman is too much of a coward. In rejecting the local event organizers’ invitation, Griffith angrily called it a “political ambush.” In spite of his announced absence, the Blacksburg event, held in a hotel ballroom, was well attended. There were armed guards to keep the peace, but they weren’t needed. Speakers self-selected, coming to the front of the room to address the audience, a vacant chair set aside for the absent congressman, and three men, Anthony Flaccavento, Justin Santopietro, and Scott Blankenship, vying to face off against the congressman in November’s election. Attendees were giving bright red and bright green pieces of paper on which the words “disagree” and “agree” respectively, were printed. Speakers were impassioned but civil. The three designated topics were the recent tax bill passed by congress, the environment, and health care. Then there was an “open” session where people could speak about whatever they had in mind.

To anyone who’s spent much time following our national conversations lately, there were no surprises. There was much discontent expressed; otherwise why speak? On health care, people spoke about personal or familial situations where the ACA was a lifesaver for them, or how when visiting other, often poorer nations found far better and cheaper care ($250 MRIs, without a prescription, anyone?), and the insanely brutal prices of pharmaceuticals. On the environment, speakers with advanced degrees in environmental and ecological sciences spoke about the immense progress our country has had in cleaning up its air and water since the 1970s because of legislation like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act passed by a Republican congress and signed by a Republican president.

In the session on the tax bill, most speakers generally agreed that the plan was a brilliant ploy by the Republican-dominated congress to placate the masses with miniscule, temporary tax breaks while showering the overwhelming benefit of the savings to the richest citizens, all while adding $1.5 trillion or more to the deficit (which apparently is a problem to Republicans only when Democrats are in control).

True, if he’d bothered to attend, Griffith would have heard many things uncomfortable to him. But if he had the courage of his convictions, he’d want to defend his positions, and would feel confident he could actually win more votes by articulating them.

It seems to me, however, there’s more than cowardliness at play here. Griffith didn’t attend because in his political calculus, he feels he doesn’t need constituent approval to win. Our deadbeat congressman hasn’t sponsored or attended a constituent meeting in over 5 years and has zero legislative accomplishments of any value to 9th District communities or individuals since taking office. Nay, he doesn’t work for, nor does he rely on for sustenance, his constituents. He works for the nation’s most dominant corporations, political action committees, and special interest groups, and to them he owes his attention and allegiance. And it will remain that way unless and until voters prove otherwise and send him packing.

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