Former members of Congress visit Sewanee, discuss youth political engagement

Two former members of Congress, Bob Carr of Michigan and Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania, visited Sewanee. Photo by Matt Hembree (C’20).

By Colton Williams
Junior Editor

In early October, two former members of Congress, Bob Carr of Michigan and Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania, visited Sewanee as a part of the Office of Civic Engagement’s “Yea Sewanee Votes!” initiative and in partnership with Congress to Campus.

Two Sewanee students, Campus Election Engagement Project fellows Emily Badgett (C’20) and Alexandria Chastenet De Gery (C’19), were also instrumental in the week’s events. Former Representatives Carr and Hart spoke to The Purple about their time at Sewanee and political engagement among college students.

Bob Carr, a Democrat from Michigan, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1975 to 1981 and 1983 to  1995. He is most well known for authoring a resolution in 1975 that effectively cut off funding to South Vietnam and Cambodia during the tail end of the Vietnam War.

Melissa Hart, a Republican from Pennsylvania, served in the House from 2001-2007. She co-chaired the Republican Party platform in 2004 and served on the Ways and Means Committee while in Congress, which handles tax writing.

Relating how they had made it to Congress, and what inspired them to seek office, Hart and Carr discussed the small moments or sparks that led them to public service.

“Your first encounter with public service may be just doing something of a charitable nature, it’s not politics necessarily,” Carr said. “For example, I was in scouting, and we were always told we had to help people across the street; you know, it’s little things, it really is little things, an accumulation of little things that pull you in the direction of thinking about others and thinking about their condition and getting some kind of empathy toward the community around you.”

Hart told a similar story of how a small community concern piqued her interest in politics. The county she lived in as a child had instituted a police and fire training academy near her neighborhood, and members of the community were concerned about the possible detrimental health effects.

“So a lot of people in the community became activists,” Hart said.“They were opposed to this, they were trying to work out some type of an arrangement, and they felt that their children and their families were in danger. It was not partisan political, but it was very political because they utilized the Council and all those other things to get what they wanted. So, I learned from that kind of activism that when you see something, do something, it’s your responsibility.”

Both Carr and Hart were first elected to public office at 27 and became engaged with politics at a young age. When asked to address some of the obstacles in getting young people to vote, Carr specifically touched on many young people’s idea that “their vote does not matter.”

Carr explained, “Your single vote does not matter, nor should it. Where is the arrogance in you thinking that you and you alone make a difference? You vote because you’re a part of a community. To think of it this way, you’re not really voting for the candidate, you’re voting for yourself! You’re voting to express your point of view, and it’s a zero-sum game. You can either play or go away… you express yourself, vote for whatever it is that you believe in, and your act of voting is an expression of that.”

Hart emphasized the need for civics education and for young people to take the time to learn about the political process and the issues they most care about before going to the voting booth.

“I actually get a little frustrated when I hear, ‘you have to vote,’ or somebody telling young people, ‘you need to vote,’” Hart said,  “because I think, first, they need to inform themselves… It also includes that you have to understand the process and be informed about what you are trying to advance with your vote.”

Regardless of their political differences, both Carr and Hart thought it essential for young people to educate themselves and become engaged members of the political process. In a last bit of advice to young people, Carr said: “My horizon in life is relatively short compared to yours, so maybe that leads young people to think that they can postpone, that we don’t have to decide right today. And I think that’s wrong, I would want young voters to know there’s more at stake for them.”