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Is Democracy Worth the Time it Takes?

In his “Meetings Series,? artist Paul Shambroom uses photographs of government meetings to raise questions about the responsibility and the challenge of democracy. These are topics I recently considered while watching Minnesota state government “work.?

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It all started when I decided to report my cell phone company to the Better Business Bureau. I felt their business practices were reprehensible and when I tried deal with them directly, I had no ability to make change. As a pretty engaged citizen, I knew there had to be something I could do.

Soon after filing my report with the BBB, I got a call from the Attorney General of Minnesota. I was asked to both take part in a class action lawsuit against the cell phone company, and was also asked to testify about my experiences as a consumer in front of a Senate Committee upon the beginning of the Minnesota Legislative session.

Last Tuesday was the day of the bill’s hearing in front of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce and Consumer Protection. I left work and arrived at the Capitol Building early so that I could meet with the Assistant Attorney General before the hearing. I practiced my remarks with her and she told me a bit about the process, assuring me that it should “only take about an hour?.

We sat down in the committee hearing room and watched the Senators and their Legislative Aides bustle around. When the hearing began, Senator Mary Olson, DFL introduced the bill and answered questions of Senators on the committee. Next, a representative of the cell phone companies testified. During all this the Senators asked a lot questions and seemed to me to be very carefully considering the legislation, often picking up on minutia in the bills 10 pages.

Finally after sitting for more than 90 minutes, I was asked to take a seat in front of the microphone. And although I was only speaking to about 15 State Senators, there were over 100 people observing the committee hearing. The press was there, taking pictures of me while I spoke, lobbyists with all different view points were in attendance, as well as representatives from different cell phone companies. It made me just a bit nervous

I successfully related my experiences with the cell phone company, which took me about 5 minutes. During which, some Senators were listening closely, some laughing or shaking their heads at different parts of my story. It felt great to have people really listen to my experience. When I was finished they did not ask any questions, and I returned to my seat observing the proceedings.

When the hearing concluded, I felt strangely successful. I had done nothing more than relate my experiences to some elected officials, but it also seemed to me that I had spoken directly to the “government?. Although the entire experience had taken over 3 hours- all work time I would have to make up- I felt elated, as though I could really make a difference in the way the bill was crafted and whether or not it would be passed.

As I was thanked by members of the Attorney General’s staff, one staffer said, “Thank you so much for your time, you did a great job, and really made a difference today.? I left the Capitol Building considering how people participate in government, and if they feel their time is worth “making a difference?. I felt recommitted to the time it takes for a democracy to be successful, but does everyone feel they have that kind of time? For me, testifying felt like both a part of my civic responsibility but also a challenge to my individual responsibilities like my job. So how often, in our society, is civic responsibility trumped by individual responsibilities and challenges?

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs