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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Jayne: Perez brings authenticity

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: September 9, 2023, 6:02am

A year after a political campaign that drew national attention, the message remains the same.

“Normal people have to show up,” Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez said this week about how to fix American politics. “I feel like I’m pretty well-matched to my district. I’m committed to my values, but I wouldn’t have run if I didn’t think my values reflected my district.”

Of course, many an elected official espouses the “values” of their constituents. And many a politician insists they are in sync with those virtues. But as Perez met this week with The Columbian’s Editorial Board, it was refreshing to see authenticity rather than theatrics.

For the record, Perez is a first-term Democrat from rural Skamania County. You probably knew that.

And she ascended to Congress after six-term incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler failed to advance to the general election last year, with Republicans in the 3rd District opting for the performative extremism of Joe Kent. Perez defeated Kent by 0.83 percentage points in the general election. You probably knew all that, as well.

But despite the familiarity of the story and the consistency of the message, Perez continues to provide a glimmer of hope for American politics. Agree or disagree with her on policy — or likely a little of both — she brings a fresh set of eyes to Washington, D.C., that provides uncommon clarity.

“It goes back to, we don’t have a Congress that looks like America,” she said. “Sometimes, I look around the room and I’m like, ‘How many people here file their own taxes?’ I’m surprised by how out of touch people are with the reality of my community.”

Whether or not Perez is in touch with that reality will be up to voters. It is notable that she recently conducted her 11th town hall meeting since taking office in January. That’s 11 more than her predecessor held over her final several terms.

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All of that speaks to the entire purpose of the House of Representatives, which is intended to provide the most direct link between the people and the federal government. The House has been fixed at 435 members since the Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929, except for when two seats were temporarily added after Alaska and Hawaii joined the union. As of the 1930 census, the average congressional district had 282,241 residents; now the typical district includes 762,988 people.

The results: Washington, D.C., is increasingly disconnected from the public, and the “normal people” Perez speaks of are increasingly left out of the process. As an insightful columnist wrote in this newspaper in 2021: “Unanimity of opinion is not the goal, but representation would be enhanced by reducing the number of people in each district.”

But Perez did not visit the Editorial Board to talk about expanding the House of Representatives. She came to discuss policy and her experiences in Washington, D.C., and the things she thinks are important to her constituents.

And it is a sad commentary on our current state of politics that any such discussion inevitably focuses on the clowns who are dominating the circus. In their latest juggling act, they are threatening to shut down the government if House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., does not ignore the budget agreement he forged earlier this year.

“I hope we can keep the federal government open,” Perez said of her priorities for the next couple weeks. “It will take people putting on their big boy pants. There are real human costs to a shutdown.”

Expecting the House’s Freedom Caucus to act like adults can be wishful thinking. Especially when performance art, on both sides, too often is conflated with leadership. “I don’t know if I’m encouraged,” Perez said. “They’re sort of cosplaying what is going to get them a sound bite.

“More than anyone wants to admit, it’s like high school. There are the cliques and the kids who want to be cool and the kids who want attention.”

All of which is a reminder that if normal people don’t want to run for office, they can at least vote for one who has.