January 7 is the first day of work in the new year for Congress. It’s a crucial time for California’s 14 freshmen, with one year under their belt and facing their first try for re-election. Democrat Mark Takano, an educator by training, spent his first year teaching his colleagues a thing or two about using new media to communicate with his constituents.
Takano made his mark in 2013 – literally – by grading a “Dear Colleague” letter. A Republican colleague had circulated a letter asking Speaker John Boehner not to bring the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill to the House floor. Takano took a red pen and underlined passages that lacked "evidence" to the "strong thesis," gave the letter an "F," and asked the writer to see him after class.
The letter went viral on Twitter and Facebook. House Democrats named the 53-year-old Takano "most valuable player" of the freshman class in an online competition. Colleagues began asking how Takano raised his profile so quickly.
Takano credits a tech savvy staff, including a communications director who worked for a record label. The payoff? Takano calls it a “communications ecosystem.” He says the wider he is known via social media in his district, the "more connection people feel. So a phone call from me to them about an issue is something that’s likely to be more productive."
It's productive for Takano to get his message to constituents without a media filter, and productive to hear directly from voters. He says this was particularly true during the debate about whether to take military action in Syria. Takano says new media allows citizens to "really hold their public officials to a higher degree of accountability than ever before."
Takano’s biggest complaint about Congress is one many Americans have about the effect of new media in their own lives: "The amount of distractions and how short a time that any member can actually concentrate on any one topic." Takano describes his days on the Hill as one meeting after another.
The challenge, he says, is setting legislative priorities. Up first for the new year: help Democrats pass an extension of long-term unemployment benefits. He’ll also push for infrastructure projects to put people back to work. And he’s committed to passing comprehensive immigration reform in 2014.
But it’s tough for a freshman lawmaker in the minority party to effect change overnight. Mostly, freshmen listen.
One afternoon, outside a subcommittee meeting, Takano quizzed GOP Congressman Dana Rohrabacher about privately financed space projects. The Huntington Beach Republican laughed and said he was never a very good student himself, so he appreciated Takano as "somebody who knows about knowledge and authority." And despite their political differences, Rohrabacher said, "there is a relationship" between the teacher and the veteran politico.
Takano says he’s maintaining a relationship with constituents back home by using new tools – such as a YouTube town hall – and plain old-fashioned media, picking up the phone to call constituents in the evenings after votes are done at the Capitol. He says it's "so wonderful to call people and not ask them for money."
Takano’s already working hard at raising money for the 2014 re-election campaign, making the trek to party headquarters to make fundraising calls. The primary is just five months away.