The newsroom phone rang. It was my friend, U.S. Army Sgt. Ian Morrow.
“I need your help,” he said.
Morrow is tough in ways I will never know, an expert in subjects I don’t even know exist. My help? With what? Verb tenses?
“I can’t get Fleischmann to take my calls,” he said.
On Monday, Oct. 7 — that’s nine days ago — Morrow picked up his cellphone to call his representative, Congressman Chuck Fleischmann. Why?
“I’ve always heard, if you have a problem, contact your representative,” Morrow said.
He wasn’t asking for dinner and a movie. Didn’t expect a lunch meeting, or some long conference call. He understands Fleischmann is busy and expects him to be. Morrow just wanted — oh, how silly it seems now, in hindsight — a few moments to tell his congressman about an issue of utmost importance.
“Service members were not receiving death benefits,” Morrow said.
Morrow, who served in Germany and Afghanistan from 2008 to 2012, was justifiably angry: as Washington shut down, the government had halted its military benefit payments to next-of-kin families of soldiers who died. (Benefits have since been re-instated).
“That money is used to help pay for funeral arrangements … it’s used to help them make travel arrangements to fly to Dover Air Force base when they receive their family member home for the last time,” Morrow said. “It is a slap in the face to families and service members.”
So Morrow called his representative.
And he’s been calling now, since last Monday.
“Twenty times,” Morrow said. “Twenty times, to hopefully get a five-minute phone call.”
He’s called mornings, evenings. Mid-mornings. Late afternoons. The Chattanooga office. The Washington office. Last Wednesday, he called five times.
He knows the staffers by name and has memorized the voicemail greeting when they don’t answer. He’s had many conversations with staffers on policy — Morrow takes notes the whole time — but not one conversation yet with his congressman.
“They told me that while my call was important, [Fleischmann] represents 635,000 other people. I said: yes, but do you get 635,000 calls a day?” Morrow said.
Scrolling through Morrow’s cell phone call log is possibly more frightening than the whole shutdown, which involves so many complicated, complex people and pieces. It’s so big, so out-of-scale, so disproportionate.
But one little phone call? The size is Goldilocks-just-right: a citizen is supposed to be able to speak directly to his or her representative. It’s not shutdown difficult; it’s dialing 10 digits. This is the heartbeat of the American political experience: the direct line between the represented and those representing. If this tiny part of democracy goes bad? God help us.
“It represents an inability for the average, everyday nobody to talk to their Congressman,” Morrow said. “How catastrophic of a failure is the entire system of representation right now.”
Morrow’s not an activist (he’s in school, getting his degree to become a teacher), and doesn’t believe one political label — Democrat or Republican — can do the job of explaining the complexity of human political thought. He’s just ticked off, first about the death benefits and now that he can’t even get his own representative on the telephone.
“If I had a working relationship with someone who was trying to get a hold of me, over and over, day after day?” Morrow said. “That is inexcusable. You wouldn’t accept that from anyone else.”
It is form letter democracy. Voicemail representation. Nonanswer answers. There are other words for it.
“Some kind of (expletive),” Morrow said.
I called Fleischmann’s office Tuesday afternoon. Spoke with Ariel, who told me everyone in the office was unavailable. Then, the press secretary buzzed in.
“Between votes and working through this government shutdown, we have been working to get him on the Congressman’s schedule,” said Tyler Threadgill. “I believe they are working on a time this afternoon.”
Maybe you can help too by calling Fleischmann yourself.
“His [office] number is 202-225-3271,” Morrow said.
Don’t worry. You can always leave a message.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...