From Congress to Campus, D.C. to BU
Former reps talk politics, policy, and career pursuits
Former U.S. Congress representatives Sue Kelly and David Minge have much in common: they’ve worked most of their lives in the private sector, have run grassroots campaigns in tough districts, and won their seats as underdogs in the early 1990s.
But oddly enough, the self-described moderates say, they never worked together during the six years their congressional terms overlapped. Last week, they finally had the chance, when they came to Boston University as part of Congress to Campus. Organized through the United States Association of Former Members of Congress (USAFMC), the program sends a bipartisan pair of former congressmen to campuses nationwide for two days of classes, events, and panel discussions. Kelly, a New York Republican, and Minge, a Minnesota Democrat, swapped stories, and occasionally, opposing political views, as they traveled across campus.
BU was invited to participate because of its connection to USAFMC’s current president, Connie Morella (CAS’54), a Republican from Maryland, who was a member of Congress from 1987 to 2003.
“It is very important for our students to meet people who have served in public life outside of the usual contexts of campaigning and lobbying,” says Virginia Sapiro, dean Arts & Sciences, whose political science class was among those visited by the former politicians. “A democracy cannot work without people who are willing to serve their communities and country in this way.”
Having a Democrat and a Republican visit together means “students can see how people who disagree with each other about politics can engage in rational, civilized, and intelligent discussion and deliberation about important policy issues,” adds Sapiro, a political scientist and women’s studies scholar. “Especially in an election year, and especially now, they may get the feeling that Democrats and Republicans have to be enemies. It’s not true.”
Last Monday, Kelly and Minge sat comfortably in front of a small crowd on the sixth floor of the Center for Student Services to discuss their career paths, each flashing a knowing smile as the other spoke.
“I never intended to run for Congress,” Kelly said. “I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up,” adding with characteristic charm that she’s still not sure she does.
Kelly holds a bachelor’s degree in botany and bacteriology from Denison University and a master’s in health advocacy from Sarah Lawrence College. She is the mother of four and her work career has ranged from blood researcher and chemist to science teacher and small business owner. Congresswoman was not on her list of aspirations until a friend and longtime Republican representative in her district, Hamilton Fish, Sr., chose not to run in 1994. When no viable conservative jumped into the race, she did—even though her opponent was Fish’s liberal Democrat son.
Kelly said she had no name recognition going into the race, noting that Fish Sr. even denied knowing her. “That’s the kind of thing you get,” she said, adding jauntily, “Then I beat his son.”
Kelly was on the Banking and Financial Services, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Small Business committees during her six terms in office, from 1995 through 2007, where she worked on projects that tracked terrorist financing, pushed for corporate accountability, and prevented domestic violence. She now runs the moderate Republican Tuesday Group Political Action Committees.
Unlike Kelly, Minge became interested in politics while still in high school, where he served in student government and regularly attended city council meetings. His opposition to the Vietnam War distanced him from politics, and after graduating from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., he earned a degree from the University of Chicago Law School. He taught at the University of Wyoming College of Law and practiced at private firms in Minnesota before running successfully for Congress in 1991. His family, professional, and church connections helped him draw support from a wide swath of voters in his largely rural district. He won his first election by just 600 votes and remained in Congress through 2001.
As a congressman, Minge joined the Blue Dog Coalition—a group of moderate and conservative Democrats—served on the Agriculture, Budget, Joint Economic, and Science committees, and championed efforts to improve water quality and protect the environment. He later was a Minnesota appellate court judge for 10 years.
Jasmine Gutierrez (CAS’13), one of the students attending the discussion, asked each former rep how they had managed to balance family lives with public service.
A big freezer for fast food meals and lots of Cheerios, Kelly responded. Joking aside, she said, she ran for office after her kids were grown. “I do not agree with women who get pregnant while they’re representatives,” she said. “I want representation, and I want someone who is keeping an eye on the ball.”
Minge said his wife was supportive and called his youngest son, who was a junior in college when he first ran for office, the best staff person he had. “I think that you have to have that buy-in with your family,” he said, noting that men with young families might have an easier time running for office than women in the same circumstances.
Andres Vargas (CAS’15) asked Minge how he could best balance his Catholic beliefs with congressional service.
Minge pointed to President John F. Kennedy as an example of a public official who kept his Catholic faith separate from governmental responsibilities. Kelly agreed, adding that “religion doesn’t belong in politics.”
Just before noon on Tuesday, Kelly and Minge fielded questions from Cathie Jo Martin’s Foundations of American Public Policy class. Martin, a CAS professor of political science, kicked off the session by asking why Congress has become so polarized.
Minge blamed jet aircraft, the reduction of Congressional international travel, and the internet. Most House members and their families used to live in the Washington, D.C., area, where they intermingled at churches and schools and forged friendships with families from across the aisle. That’s no longer the case, he said, noting that today most representatives opt to fly home on weekends to see their families. International travel used to provide an opportunity for bipartisan bonding on long plane trips and during tough diplomatic assignments. But the budget no longer supports these so-called “junkets.” And the internet, said Minge, advocates a more rigid, less nuanced ideological message for each party, contributing to further division.
Kelly blamed the media for reporting campaigns “like sports events,” where there’s a Red versus Blue party. “There’s a lot of false information, especially in this campaign,” she said, referring to the presidential race. “Fact-check it!” She listed FactCheck.org, Real Clear Politics, and Snopes.com as good resources for students interested in getting accurate campaign information.
Connor Maher (CAS’14) said he had read the work of a political scientist who claimed committee leadership assignments were based more on representatives’ fundraising power than on merit, and he wanted to know the truth.
Kelly said the author of the article had “bad reporting and bad information,” adding that party leaders don’t have a method for picking committee assignments. But Minge acknowledged seeing the practice in the Democratic caucus, although no one was denied a chair because they failed to reach a quota. “It creates conflicts of interest,” he said, but “fundraising is necessary in presidential and congressional races in this country.”
And that may be a key lesson for students interested in public service, something Kelly and Minge urged students to consider during their visit.
“Our job is to convey to you the value of this system of government, with all its warts, to say that you too have to participate,” Minge said. “Be demanding, insist on good government, but don’t be so cynical that you just check out.”+ Comments