Sunday, February 18, 2018
Opinion

Column: The power of the personal in politics

Before she became a reluctant lobbyist, involuntarily versed in arcane Senate procedure, Nicole Hockley thought that strange word was spelled with an "s" — "closure," not "cloture."

But this was before the terrible day that Hockley and her fellow Sandy Hook parents refer to simply as 12/14, before Hockley's 6-year-old son Dylan died in his teacher's arms.

Now Hockley, a marketing consultant who once specialized in reducing carbon emissions but never dabbled in politics, can speak with fluency about the vote count on the motion to proceed.

"There were growing numbers who were opposing a move to cloture, and very few were standing up against that filibuster," Hockley recalled of the grim situation when she and other Sandy Hook parents arrived in Washington, having hitched a ride on Air Force One after the president's trip to Newtown.

It was a bittersweet perk. "Any other occasion on earth riding on Air Force One would be the most amazing day of your life," said Nelba Marquez-Greene, whose daughter Ana, 6, was killed. "But I was riding on Air Force One because my baby was shot in the chest and the neck."

The Sandy Hook parents asked, deftly wielding the power conferred by tragedy, to meet directly with senators, not staff. But, focused more on gentle, private persuasion than public arm-twisting, they also took pains to conduct the meetings without the customary media entourage. In all, they met with more than a quarter of the Senate, sharing the stories of their dead children and pressing, at the least, for a chance to have the gun proposals debated on the floor.

And by all accounts, the parents of Sandy Hook played an influential, perhaps decisive, role in achieving that goal last Thursday morning, with 68 senators — including 16 Republicans — voting to proceed with debate.

To speak with Sandy Hook parents is to grasp anew the power of the personal in politics. Money may be motivating, fear of losing the next election even more so. But politicians are people too. No matter where you may be on the political spectrum in general or the matter of gun control in particular, you cannot help but be moved by the rawness of these mothers' anguish and the force of their pragmatic determination.

"We're the middle," said Francine Wheeler, fingering a necklace in the form of a treble clef, testament to her slain son Benjamin's perfect pitch, that contains some of his ashes. "We're the middle that doesn't want to infringe on anybody's Second Amendment but wants to keep kids safe."

The mothers hand out glossy postcards with heartbreakingly beautiful photographs of their murdered children — Ana Marquez-Greene in her poufy pigtails, Dylan Hockley grinning in a Superman T-shirt, doe-eyed Benjamin Wheeler with his older brother.

To say this is not to be naive about the limits of the capacity of grief to persuade. The threat of a less-than-perfect grade from the National Rifle Association remains potent. The NRA gave lawmakers a pass on this procedural vote; not so, it threatened in a letter, with the next cloture vote, on whether to move to final passage. Unlike most procedural votes, that step will be scored as a "key vote," the gun group advised, ominously.

And once — if — the Senate acts, the Republican-controlled House presents a potentially insurmountable hurdle. "But they're parents," Wheeler said. "The House has lots of parents, lots of grandparents, and I think they're going to be willing to listen. I have faith that they will."

Political activism was not on these mothers' agendas — not before the massacre and certainly not afterward. "After the murder, brushing my teeth was on my radar," said Marquez-Greene. Yet, she concluded, she had little choice but to become involved, "so you don't have to interview three more mothers two years from now who buried their children due to gun violence."

To those who dismiss the pending proposal as a pitifully thin slice of a loaf, who mourn the absence of limits on magazine capacity or assault weapons, the mothers have a, well, maternal response.

"When you have a baby and they start learning to walk and they take that first step and it's not perfect, do you say to them, 'Sit down!' because it wasn't perfect?" Marquez-Greene asked. "It's the same with this. This is baby steps, incremental steps. We're taking the first one now and we're going to keep walking."

© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

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