Lois Capps: Reporting for Duty

Tall and elegant in a crisp blue suit, Lois Capps looked like a Hollywood film version of a Congresswoman when she came to talk to the sixth graders of Gaviota’s Vista de las Cruces School in 1998. She  began the conversation by explaining to the students that she worked for them and was eager to hear their questions. (There was a study in progress at the time evaluating the feasibility and implications of  designating the Gaviota coastal area as a National Park, and this is reflected in some of the discussion that follows.) She also mentioned the difficult way in which she was led to the job: her husband Walter had been elected to Congress but died suddenly of a heart attack after only ten and a half months in office.

“Then I had a big decision to make,” she explained, “because they needed to have an election to replace him. I decided to try. My main reason for wanting to run was that I loved how Walter chose to serve – he used the phrase ‘citizen representative’ which comes from Thomas Jefferson. He had the idea that democracy should be made of representatives from all walks of life, and Congress, with its 455 members, is the people’s house. It’s where we all come together with passion and hard work on behalf of our constituents. We put all our views together and compromise – and in the end, we settle on something in a fair way, a consensus. I liked how Walter did this, and that’s why I decided to try.”

“You know I work for you?” she asked the students. “So here I am — reporting for duty.”

Chelsea asked Lois what she believed were our biggest concerns as a nation; without a moment’s hesitation, Lois mentioned education.

“One of the key ways to ensure that our wonderful way of life continues,” she explained, “is through our schools. Many people face barriers – but in schools, everyone has a chance. If you have an opportunity to learn, you can do whatever you want to with your life. My goal is to keep that opportunity there. Schools are the best thing we have in our country — I literally believe that — and that’s why I work so hard for our schools in Congress. We all have to pay attention to our schools because that’s the secret to success for our country.”

“Of course there are other concerns as well. We also need to have a defense system in place to protect our borders, and we need to make sure we have support for highways, libraries, hospitals – it’s amazing how many things we depend upon. Government doesn’t do all of that, but people like me have to make sure there are programs in place to keep the infrastructure going.”

Nole and Trevor asked about Congress’ role in funding research for diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease and diabetes. Lois was sympathetic and supportive. “There’s so much work to do, and I am working on a bill for this. We want to set aside money to do research, and also to keep Medicare in place for older people, and make sure it covers the medicines that are available. When people in our own community are suffering, my role as your representative is to go to my colleagues in Congress and ask them to help out and get this bill passed. I have to work hard and get good ideas passed into law.”

“How do you find out what the people in your district want you to do?” asked another student.

“I’m doing it right now. My job is to listen really carefully all day, every day, about what people think I should be helping with. Then I go back to Washington D.C. – with a great staff to help – and work on it.”

Frannie asked if it was hard. “Yes, it’s a big job,” replied Lois. “It’s exciting, but it’s also very humbling. I have met a lot of really interesting people who care about the country in the ways that I do. I’ve learned from them as well, and I’ve had the chance to do some really good things, too. I feel grateful for the opportunity. It makes me want to work very hard and do the best job I can.”

Crystal asked Lois how she unwinds from all this pressure. “I have always loved going for a walk,” Lois replies, “and at this point in my life that’s my favorite thing to do when I am alone. I spend a lot of time on airplanes now, so for me to take a walk all by myself is fun. We live in a beautiful place! I love to walk on the beach or in my neighborhood, early in the morning — it gives me time to think and get my priorities straight. There are a lot of things to sort out. Being outdoors helps me — I can never do it quite as well inside.”

“But I’m happiest of all when I’m with my family. I have two grandchildren; one is five and one is one. And I think about them a lot. I think the children of our district are the most important people.”

Lois had loving advice for the sixth grade children. “You don’t get to be a young person forever,” she told the class. “There’s nothing better than a day like today to play and do whatever you want to do. So go out for recess and just run like crazy. Be healthy. Use the knowledge you have about what’s good for you to do or not do. you are at an age when you are no longer a little kid; you’re getting into that age where people are expecting things of you. It’s hard, isn’t it? Hard to grow up. So another tip I would give you is to find someone you can really trust. Maybe a parent, a relative, a teacher – and use that person.”

Before leaving, Lois asked the students what she should work on when she gets back to Washington. The kids express concerns about the Tajiguas dump, and about cleaning up the creeks and the ocean.

“Okay,” Lois said, “I should work on pollution and the environment. But that’s gonna mean changing our habits, too, and taking things like recycling very seriously.”

“And we’re concerned about public access to the Hollister Ranch and all the talk we’ve heard about turning this whole area into a national park,” Nole told her, “This is not a good idea. We don’t want to see it ruined like everything else.”

“The Gaviota Coast is the largest remaining stretch of protected, still beautiful coastline in California from Mexico to beyond San Francisco,” said Lois. “By keeping it in ranch and agriculture, we still have an opportunity to do something to protect it … but I’m counting on you to help me out. We all have the same goal.”

These kids knew and loved the Gaviota land as well as anyone, and they suddenly became very animated. There was understandable uneasiness about government involvement here, even in the form of a “study,” and even when presented by someone as well meaning as Lois Capps. The land has been preserved for generations by careful use and private stewardship, not by accident, but by the self-restraint and conscious choices of those who know it best, and it has obviously worked. The evidence is in the beauty and viability of the natural surroundings, the very reason it is now drawing attention.

Lois was clearly energized by the discussion. “I want to learn exactly why and how we can keep this coast for the future. I’ll be back, I promise you. I’ll be back.”

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