Walking down a long hallway of the Rayburn Building in Washington, D.C., a pair of tall, open double doors at the end framed by flags focused my attention. Just past the doors, a large desk made a stately picture. As I got closer, I saw it was my daughter, Kelsey, at the desk. She looked up and flashed a professional, somewhat intimidating smile before jumping up to greet me like a kid on recess.
She was in her third week of her two-month internship for Congressman Henry Waxman. When she completed her internship a couple of days ago, I was stunned at how the past 21 years came to this point. And I think of what’s next.
Moving to Eugene just before Kelsey’s third birthday, I remember her dancing with other kids in a twirl of colorful ribbons at a neighborhood May Day celebration. Her mom and I bought a small house on four acres near Pleasant Hill High School. Kelsey had room to run, swing, climb, and explore with dogs, cats, horses and friends. She had the small town lifestyle, but her mom and I were diligent about travel; we didn’t want her limited by a provincial worldview. I believe this cultivated her interest in learning about diverse people, cultures, and perspectives. It’s probably also responsible for the single word tattoo on her right foot: travel.
Kelsey’s baptism by fire into politics probably began around age 5, negotiating the partisan landscape carved by her mom and me. Our inevitable divorce happened when Kelsey was 8, and we made one smart move: our 50/50 joint custody settlement required that we agree on any decision — diet, school, travel, religion, friends, politics — that shaped her experience. It compelled us to resolve differences related to her. (Perhaps our mediator could craft a similar agreement for Congress.)
I purposely avoided discussing my personal political views directly with Kelsey until she was a freshman in high school, but she was exposed to vast spectrum of opinions — left to right — in her extended family, and she was fascinated by media, from MSNBC to Fox, and of course the wisdom of Colbert. She challenged all political opinions with unnerving independence as an emerging critical thinker.
Kelsey managed her mom and me as if we were two politicians scrambling for her vote in separate districts. She cleverly leveraged — often forced — our bi-partisan support. Needless to say, she knew we needed her votes; she got earmarks approved. She also learned how to deal with conflict and that “truth” often required exploration and validation, even (or especially) when translated through mom and dad’s mercurial egos. She developed her sense of justice early in life.
Kelsey’s colorful personality was shaped by diverse friends and neighbors, from alternative culture devotees to business owners and blue collar workers. She made friends at Trent Elementary who remain close to this day. She wasn’t a bookworm and loved being outdoors. She made fewer than the usual teen mistakes and somehow blossomed with a huge heart and strong character.
In high school, Kelsey was challenged and inspired by teachers including the exacting Mr. Adams and eccentric Mr. Lawless. She won a state humanities grant for a research paper, “Theocracy or Democracy,” and as a senior she was offered a full scholarship to a private university but, instead, she chose UC Santa Cruz. She loved the coast, the redwoods, and the university’s legacy of politics and environmental sciences. An avid Ducks fan (still), it was a painful but clear decision for her to leave Oregon. Kelsey yearned for fresh experiences and new friends. (But, to this day, she returns to Eugene for several weeks every summer to hang with her old crew.)
As her political interests grew in college, I realized that negotiating divorced parents forged her fearless tenacity. She and her Millennial peers seem undaunted by the petulant anti-government blustering from extremists infecting the 112th Congress. Defying what has become debilitating threshing in the House, Kelsey insists upon identifying points and facts with credible sources, relentlessly separating wheat from chaff. Her sense of purpose remains impervious to political bullying and partisan misinformation. (This doesn’t always serve my interests; life was easier as a dictator — brush teeth, go to bed.)
Kelsey quickly learned that the internet could champion or sabotage truth. She tracked the 2008 election closely; her desktop was CNN’s real-time electoral map. Once, in early 2010, she watched a television newscast describing “death panels” in the Affordable Care Act while at the same time tracking the same text (online in the actual ACA document) being twisted in the newscast. “They lied, how can they do that? They’re just making stuff up!” she complained, genuinely dismayed. This was the official loss of innocence.
The next month, for her next spring break, she called me. Most kids go to, you know, Miami or Palm Springs to bathe in hormones and shoot tequila with a sunstroke chaser — and she’s done her share of partying — but not this time. She wanted to go to D.C. for the Affordable Care Act vote! On Capitol Hill, I watched her brazenly weave through what I saw as mindless Tea Party protestors and engage them in conversation. She wanted to know why they held their opinions. I knew none of these drooling zealots grunting about a Kenyan conspiracy would be converted, but I saw several people smile and walk away perplexed by that nice girl with actual facts informing her opinion. For Kelsey, this was as fun as a Lady Gaga concert. For me, it was more fun than watching Limbaugh choke on a chicken bone.
Last year, as a volunteer, when given inflated statistics to make an otherwise valid point for an advocacy group, Kelsey refused the hyperbole and chose to use a more accurate statistic she could verify with a source. I admired her dedication for using fact rather than marketing tactics as persuasion! She’s clearly driven by passion but seems to appreciate informed passion.
What will her political intention produce? The economic melt-down planted seeds of political and economic distrust in Millennials worldwide. This crisis has meant unprecedented youth unemployment and severely reduced post-college opportunities. After the billionaire-sponsored ambush in the 2010 elections and the current billion-dollar ad offensive by the Koch-Rove cartel, perhaps Kelsey’s generation will react and recapture our nation’s vision for a better society based on democratic principles. Will she help make government more active, efficient, and accountable? Will she acquiesce to abusive power masquerading as “free” markets that benefit an increasingly small minority of power brokers? Will she help the 99 percent movement focus its message and gain political coherence?
Kelsey and her fellow Millennials have seen the statistical reality of the “trickle-down” myth and its destruction of middle incomes, so I don’t think they’ll buy into it again. I’ve definitely seen more of Kelsey’s generation pushed toward progressive positions by the extreme right’s thuggish tactics, but her personal politics may change. Or, she may not always pursue political jobs. I have no idea, but I know two things: 1) she’ll always be an informed voter; and 2) it’s going to be a decade of adventure with fireworks. I know this because I saw it flash like sparklers in her look when she was in the congressman’s office, at that desk, framed by those big doors and the flags. Welcome to Capitol Hill. Meet the Next Generation.