James: How we talk matters when we talk politics
As a kid growing up in Nebraska, I loved sports but was not a natural athlete. For starters, I was really small. So the two most popular sports for girls—basketball and volleyball—were non-starters, because the balls were bigger than I was. Or that's how it felt, anyway. The other popular sport, track, was also out, because I'm really slow. My performance at the sixth-grade all-school Track and Field Day — held at the high-school football stadium, with parents cheering from the bleachers — still ranks right up there as one of my most humiliating memories. I'll give you a clue: the three-legged race. Not exactly the marquis event.
Then I found tennis, a sport with a small ball where footwork matters more than speed, and I could practice by myself — for hours — on the wooden backboard at the rec park. I practiced and played, then practiced and played a lot more, and set a long-term goal of someday making the high-school varsity team (and wearing a letter jacket!). In every game in every match, I wanted nothing more than to win.
One summer in middle school, to my amazement, I made the finals of the town tournament. And perhaps inspired by U.S. Open bad boy John McEnroe, when I blew an important point, I hurled my wooden racket to the ground in anger.
The next thing I remember is the blur of my mother, firmly taking my arm and removing me from the court. Game, set, match. She pulled me from the tournament for poor sportsmanship. My mom reminded me that day something I already knew and have never forgotten: Winning matters, but how you win matters even more.
Fast-forward to 2018, when I was elected to represent the Bennington-4 district in the Vermont General Assembly. As a first-time candidate, I decided to run for many reasons. First, I love this community, my home since 1996, and wanted to be of service. Second, I care deeply about policies that I believe will help Vermonters now and for many generations to come — issues like climate action, education, supporting small businesses, paid family leave, and affordable high-quality childcare.
I also ran as a direct, almost visceral reaction to Donald Trump. As a Democrat, but mostly as someone who has an abiding love for this country, one thing I find appalling about Trump is the way he talks about his fellow Americans, and the way he has degraded the way that Americans talk to and about each other, especially on social media. Even at the local level, I wanted to be a different kind of leader — a leader rooted in respect.
Two years later, the 2020 campaign is challenging me to define and to apply those values. And to remember those long-ago lessons about sportsmanship.
As local voters know, I'm up for re-election this year and I'm sure it will be a tough race — a three-way contest for two seats between me, my Democratic running mate Seth Bongartz, and our opponent, Rep. Cynthia Browning. All of those details have been widely reported in the local papers, and I'm sure you'll be hearing plenty more, both from and about us.
So this column isn't a pitch for your vote. Instead, it's a brief tap of the "pause" button to say: As a quote-unquote politician, I care a lot about how I campaign, and I care a lot about how I represent our communities — in the statehouse, in email correspondence with constituents, in committee hearings and during floor debate, and on social media.
A few weeks ago, I had a long talk with someone I respect, someone who has worked in international politics for years. We talked about the difference between being tough — being willing to call it like I see it — and negative campaigning. That's a hard line to define, but it matters a great deal to me. In the upcoming campaign, I'll need to be honest but fair, and maybe it's best to be guided by the clear principles that I first learned as a journalist: Is it accurate? Is it relevant?
Does it bring important information to light that you might not otherwise know?
All of these internal struggles remind me that, in politics and in life, people are imperfect — and I'm imperfect. And on many days, what may matter most is my intent.
So here's my intent: During my first term in the legislature, I've tried to engage in politics guided by values of honesty, integrity and respect. I'll keep those values front and center during the 2020 campaign. I know Seth and Cynthia will, too.
Winning this race matters a great deal to me, because it's not just my name on the ballot. This election is about how we rebuild our local and state economy, how we invest in Vermont's future, what team of leaders we send to Montpelier, and the things we need to accomplish to build a just and sustainable world for our children and grandchildren.
But like I learned as a kid, how you win matters — not just to me, but to all of us. During the 2020 campaign, on social media and beyond, I'm confident the voters and candidates of Southern Vermont can and will remind Americans of that most fundamental of democratic values: respect.
By the way, in case you're dying to know: I made the varsity tennis team. Senior year, at the state tournament, I lost in the No. 2 women's singles finals in a tiebreaker. I cried. But I didn't throw my racket.
Kathleen James is a Democrat who represents the Bennington-4 district (Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and Sunderland) in the Vermont House of Representatives). She serves on the Education Committee, the New England Board of Higher Education, and the Select Committee on the Future of Higher Education in Vermont.
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