In the aftermath of the Tucson, Ariz. shootings that left six dead and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), local, state and federal lawmakers in The Argonaut coverage area have pledged to continue attending public outings.
“I’m not going to hide,” Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) declared in an interview less than a week after Giffords and others were allegedly shot by Jared Loughner at a congressional event Jan. 8.
While Harman said the shooting makes her “more mindful” of the dangers that she and other lawmakers can potentially face when they attend public events, the Tucson tragedy will not deter her from meeting and speaking publicly with her constituents.
“This makes me more aware of the risk that we are taking when we go out into the public, but this is what I signed up for,” said Harman, who sat with Giffords at a New Democrats meeting the week before she was shot.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl echoed Harman’s thoughts on his desire to continue to have a public presence at community forums.
“After the shooting, I think we all realized that we’re vulnerable,” said the councilman, who was with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Westchester) at Mar Vista Gardens in Del Rey when the shooting occurred. “But democracy can’t function unless (lawmakers) are among the public.”
Waters, who met with constituents and attended public functions over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend in Los Angeles, said hosting public events goes with the territory of an officeholder.
“It does give me pause. The reality is that it could happen to anyone, anywhere, at anytime,” she said. “It hits close to home, obviously, because Gabby is a colleague.”
Former Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Marina del Rey), who is running for the 28th District state Senate seat in a Feb. 15 special election, served three terms in the Assembly and previously as a city councilman in Torrance, so he is accustomed to being in the public eye as a legislator.
“The best way for our democracy to function is for elected officials to engage with the public,” Lieu said. “One of the most important and most rewarding parts of my job has been to get to know the people in my district, and if I’m elected to the state Senate that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
Like Harman, Lieu and Rosendahl, Waters said the Arizona shooting will not keep her from meeting with the public as often as possible.
“It will not affect my accessibility to my constituents. It certainly shook me to my core, but I am a federal representative, and I must carry out my duties at all times,” the congresswoman stated. “That’s what my constituents sent me back to Washington with 80 percent of the vote to do.”
A national tragedy that occurred in Los Angeles 42 years ago continues to serve as a reminder to Rosendahl how vulnerable even the most charismatic politicians can be.
“I was at the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated,” the councilman, who worked on the former senator from New York’s campaign, solemnly recalled. “That image has been with me the last 42 years of my life, so I realize what can happen when you are in public office.”
Waters and Harman were recently briefed by the House sergeant of arms on how to coordinate security with local law enforcement authorities when they are attending meetings open to the public.
“Every district office will have a point person who will coordinate with local law enforcement for any public events,” Harman explained. “I also think that we should train our staff in triage measures, like first aid and CPR, in case there is a need for it.”
The tone of political rhetoric, according to a number of commentators after the shooting, has created more acrimony and some see it as the tinder that can ignite the flame of an unstable person who might subsequently engage in an act like Loughner is accused of committing outside a Tucson supermarket.
“The debate and animosity between the (political) parties is very high, no one can doubt that,” Waters acknowledged. “But in a democracy, passions and debate run high. It’s the very nature of our political system.
“What we can do is act passionately without being poisonous, you know, stand up for our beliefs and our convictions without tearing each other down.”
Dr. Sheila Forman, a Santa Monica clinical psychologist, said caustic political dialogue could push certain people over the top and cause them to act in self-destructive ways or harm others.
“People who have tendencies toward anti-social behavior can often act out, depending on their environment,” Forman, who is the chair of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association’s Media Committee, told The Argonaut.
Lieu said he is an ardent admirer of the First Amendment, but pointed out that it is not absolute for those who cite it when they make insensitive comments.
“(Former Alaska Gov.) Sarah Palin can say absurd and crazy things, as is her right under the First Amendment. But reasonable people also have the right to criticize her for those same comments,” Lieu, who is an attorney, noted.
A Washington Post – ABC News poll released Monday, Jan. 17 found majorities of Americans believe that political partisans on the right and left have gone past the point of incivility, and almost half felt the same way about the Tea Party.
Harman credited President Barack Obama for his speech on civility at the University of Arizona days after the shooting. “I think he hit it out of the park,” she said. “It was the perfect medicine for a hurt country.”
Rosendahl, who has faced hostile crowds in Venice and Playa Vista over the last several months, sees an increasingly hostile side to public as well as political debate.
“The tone of political discourse needs to appreciate what’s going on out there in the world,” Rosendahl, a former psychiatric counselor, said. “There is a lot of anger over unemployment and a lot of lingering anxiety among people and it’s very real.”
The alleged shooter had been asked to leave his community college after exhibiting strange and erratic behavior, according to friends and teachers, and a childhood friend has spoken publicly about his deteriorating mental state.
Forman believes the Tucson incident has cast a spotlight on some of the failures of the mental health network and can open an important dialogue on the need for more outreach.
“This is a really good opportunity (for politicians and the public) because it highlights some of the holes in our mental health system,” she said.
Waters concurs. “We absolutely must take a look at mental health issues. All signs in the Arizona shooter’s case point to a young, troubled man who was slipping out of touch with reality and really disturbing the people around him,” she said. “Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, and the (national) health care reform bill took steps to address this problem.
“Right now, if you’ve been denied insurance because of mental illness as a pre-existing condition, you may be eligible for the pre-existing health insurance pools that are being set up,” the congresswoman continued. “And starting in 2014, when the bill fully comes on line, insurers won’t be able to deny coverage because of mental illness.”
Forman said while it is not easy for lay people who do not have the experience and training to diagnose someone who is mentally ill, most people can tell if a colleague or loved one is acting strangely, she said.
“Most of the time, we can get a sense of a person’s behavior if it is a little odd,” she said.
If someone acts erratically at a school, telling a teacher or an administrator would be best, or someone with human resources at work, the psychologist recommends.
“Then they can leave it up to the professionals to actually make the diagnosis. It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Forman said.
In California, the 5150 section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code allows a qualified officer or clinician to involuntarily confine a person deemed to have a mental disorder that makes them a danger to him or her self and/or others, and/or gravely disabled.
Harman expressed concern for members of her staff regarding incidents like the one in Tucson, as they too accompany her on public events.
“I’m like a surrogate mother to a lot of these young people and I feel responsible for them,” she said. “I realize that I have to take whatever measures that I can to make sure that my staff and my constituents are safe.
“As for me, I refuse to hide,” Harman added. “I’m prepared to take the risk.”
Lieu, who is a colonel in the U.S Air Force Reserves, said he does not feel any particular anxiety when he campaigns or attends public functions since the Arizona shooting. “Honestly, I don’t,” he said. “There was more risk when I took my (military) oath in 1991.”
Rosendahl said despite any possible risks, legislators have a duty to meet with their constituents, whether they are friendly or not.
“It goes with the territory,” he reiterated. “This is about open democracy, and this is part of our job as elected officials.”