I was nearly done reading Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site to my three-year-old when he heard the fireworks go off and we learned that US President Barack Obama had been reelected. The party downstairs erupted in cheers.
But my own experience with politics makes me think about who lost more than who won.
In 2006, I appeared before a House subcommittee considering real estate reform. It was like visiting the capital for the Hunger Games, as an outsider in a glamorous and byzantine fairy tale: I couldn’t believe how beautiful all the congressional aides were and I never understood the system of bells and alarms warning legislators to vote. I was surprised that everyone still wore suits.
But the biggest surprise was this: that within moments of my being there, it became impossible to believe, as I had from my adolescent days of Dungeons & Dragons, that one side was good and the other was evil.
After all, the politicians I’d spent my life campaigning against were the ones who had invited me to speak. And the ones whom I’d always thought of as my friends were, on that day, my enemies.
Back then, before the settlement of a federal anti-trust lawsuit against the National Association of Realtors, it was hard for a technology startup like mine to compete with real estate brokers and still get access to the data brokers collected about homes for sale.
Democrats argued for the states’ rights to set their own real estate rules. Republicans campaigned for federal regulations to ensure the market was competitive. And members of the real estate industry were the only ones really paying attention. They had spilled out into overflow rooms to watch their lobbying dollars at work.
I’d flown in on a red-eye, cutting myself while shaving in a Dulles bathroom. In a hallway, I practiced giving my little speech but my hands shook so much I couldn’t read my own writing.
I was a mess, until these veteran staffers looked out from their offices and invited me over to take some motherly advice. They told me that these poor members of Congress were just dying of boredom so I should just try to be funny.
I noticed how cramped the offices of the minority party were and thought how it must rankle to work there. When I came into the hearing room, I was shocked to discover that the left and the right literally sat on the left and the right, like third-graders with separate lines for boys and girls.
It was a relief for me to see that one Democrat, Maxine Waters, and one Republican, Bob Ney, got along; they were the ranking committee members whose jobs back then were supposedly safe. Everyone else was at each others’ throats.
The varying degrees of intelligence between members of a party—Artur Davis, a Democrat who has now become a Republican, was, by far, the smartest—left me convinced that if everyone could just meet each candidate for 30 seconds, our votes would zigzag cross party lines. Today, when I am casting my vote for an insurance commissioner or a state senator based on party affiliation, I still think of it as a small crime.
My talk at the hearing was partly a hit and mostly a disaster but I enjoyed it because the staffers told me that enjoying it was what I should do. The moment the hearing ended, the room cleared. When I came back to get my luggage, the staffers were beaming. From a few doors down, they’d watched the entire proceedings over the web, which struck me at the time as a strange thing to do.
We shook hands and I never saw them again. But I thought about their many kindnesses often, so much so that the following spring I called them, to say thank you again.
Their phones rang and rang, but no one answered. There wasn’t even a recorded message. At first, I felt jilted. But then I realized their boss had lost an election. Someone new had moved into the big office. And they were all gone. As much as anyone, I’ve argued for more comity in politics. But I’d have fought to the death for those staffers.
Six years later, when I tried to explain to my son that Romney and Obama had been trying to win the presidency, he suggested that “maybe they can both win,” which practically moved me to tears.
But I knew the real reason why they both had fought so hard and, in the end, so viciously. And the ones I felt for were the folks who would have to clean out the political offices, and turn out the lights.