Last night I experienced an important part of how special interest lobbying works. At a classy restaurant just steps from Capitol Hill, I joined bike industry and advocacy leaders for a reception (and dinner, but I didn’t stay for that) hosted by BikesPAC.
BikesPAC is a political action committee founded by the non-profit Bikes Belong Foundation that raises money from donors and then spends the money on congressional campaigns of members that are supportive of biking. Each year during the National Bike Summit, BikesPAC hosts a reception and dinner and invites members of Congress to stop by. The idea is to share with them what the Bike Summit is all about, give thanks for their support of biking, and generally just try to strengthen the name of biking on Capitol Hill.
Bikes Belong Executive Director Tim Blumenthal served as the night’s host (a job he did with much aplomb). As the members arrived, he would tap a glass to gain everyone’s attention and we would all gather around while he introduced us to the member. At that point, each one of them shared a few words. In all, six members of Congress stopped by the event. They were; Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA), Rep. John Mica (R-FL).
Our first guest was Senator Lamar Alexander. Sen. Alexander shared a story about how he walked 1,000 miles across Tennessee in 1978. “I watched out for big trucks, dogs, and ligthtning…sort of like you guys do huh?”, he said. “Did you ever think of doing it on a bike?” someone asked. “No,” he replied, “but maybe I should have.”
Sen. Tom Udall from New Mexico was next to join us. He cheerfully recalled riding his bike with Lance Armstrong in the last leg of the Tour of Hope charity ride. He encouraged the crowd to tie in their advocacy efforts with the energy debate. Udall also expressed a lot of support for bikeways, saying that all roads should be bike-friendly and that “We should put the money in to do it right.”
Next up was Senator Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania. After playfully chastising Tim Blumenthal for not inviting President Obama to the event, Specter told us an anecdote about being a bike messenger when he was a boy in Kansas. “I’m very fond of my recollections of bicycling.” he said, “it’s a great sport.” Being from the right side of the aisle, Specter said he has taken a lot of heat from fellow Republicans for supporting Obama’s stimulus plan. “If you want a bike advocate in the Senate,” he told us, “I’ll need your support on this.” He also said he plans to be a co-sponsor on the recently introducted Complete Streets Act.
It was a pleasant surprise for members of the Oregon delegation that were present when rookie Senator Jeff Merkley showed up. He told us, that as a 19-year old Congressional intern, he would bike into the capitol and went six months in D.C. without even owning a car. Merkley also remembered his time in Portland’s West Hills, racing quarter-midget cars at Alpenrose Dairy, “I would go over to the track [velodrome] and tell my dad, ‘that’s what I want to do!'”.
When he left the reception, all the members of the Oregon delegation that were present took the opportunity to get a group photo with him. BTA Executive Director Scott Bricker also made a point to thank Sen. Merkley for his support of the Vulnerable Roadway Users bill, which he voted for as Speaker of the Oregon House.
Rep. Doris Matsui from Sacramento California, who had opened the Summit with a keynote about the Complete Streets Act, was next to stop by. She re-iterated her “our highway system is broken” mantra and said about the upcoming authorization of the transportation bill, “We’re going to write a transformational bill…and you’re going to be a part of something big.”
The last member of Congress to make it to the party last night was Rep. John Mica from Florida. Mica is the House Minority Leader of the all-important Transportation and Infrastructure committee. He shared candidly that, while he and Rep. Earl Blumenauer “have our disagreements from time to time,” he is supportive of biking. Mica boasted that Florida leads the nation in rail-trails and then said in a self-deprecating tone, “That’s pretty good for a right-wing, knuckle-dragging conservative.” On that note, Mica said that as a Republican he has to support biking “quietly”. “I did a path over an interstate years ago,” he said, and then began to smile, “but we didn’t send out a press release on it.”
The evening was interesting and exciting (in a, “Wow. This is how our democracy works?!” sort of way). One thing that will stay with me after being there is that several of the members seemed sincerely appreciative, not just for the invite and thanks they received, but for the work of the advocates in the room.
Sen. Udall said, “Don’t just elect us, constantly hound us. A democracy only works when you stay involved.”
This story is part of our special 2009 National Bike Summit coverage (sponsored by Planet Bike). For more coverage, follow BikePortland on Twitter and browse the latest photos in our Bike Summit photo gallery.