I first “met” Elena Ault in early January when she was preparing to attend President Obama’s Inauguration. She pitched the idea of writing an article on the inauguration from her perspective. She is 10 and is a fifth grader at Mill Hill School in Fairfield. She plays the piano, is working toward a black belt in Kung Fu and is interested in politics and journalism. Her story ran on line in the Connecticut Post after the inauguration.
A month later, Elena emailed again. This time she had lined up an interview with Congressman Jim Himes and wanted to know if we would run what she wrote. Here is her interview:
by Elena Ault
Congressman Jim Himes, Representative of the 4th district of Connecticut, agreed to meet with me in his Stamford office. From the moment I walked into his office, his staff was so kind to me. Congressman Himes had just arrived from Danbury where he heard Vice-President Biden speak about gun control. Before meeting with me, he had to meet with another group of people, and after meeting with me he was headed to Greenwich to attend a town hall meeting. While waiting to speak with him, I admired the view of downtown Stamford from 10 floors up and could hear his staff go over Congressman Himes’ upcoming schedule. I realized then how many people he must meet with each day to discuss important issues and how much of an honor it was that he took the time to speak to me – a 10 year old!
When Congressman Himes came out to greet me, he was friendly and had a smile on his face He immediately put this 10 year old reporter as ease! Throughout the interview, he kept his smile, took my questions seriously, and gave careful thought to his answers. I found him to be very approachable and easy to listen to. I enjoyed learning about his daily responsibilities, his view on education, the economy, and gun control.
I learned that Congressman Himes spends three to four days a week in Washington, D.C. while Congress is in session. He described a typical day on Capital for me. He talked about meeting with various groups such the American Cancer Society who would like to see the government spend more money on cancer research so that more lives could be saved. He also explained that as a member of the Financial Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, he spends a lot of time looking at the details of laws and policies and thinking about whether they need to be changed. An interesting fact that I learned was that when it comes time to vote, each of the 435 members of Congress have cards that slide into boxes which records their yes or no vote electronically. At the end of the day, after a little exercise, he is off to meet and talk to more people at dinners and receptions that he is invited to.
His day sounded interesting but exhausting! So, I asked him why he wanted to become a congressman. He explained that he has always been interested in the ability of the government to make people’s lives better. He mentioned things like the civil rights movement in the 60s which gave blacks right to vote and the G.I. Bill which helped veterans go to college. He talked about wanting to help the government do better things for people in a more efficient and smarter way.
When asked about any surprises he encountered about his job once he was elected, he explained that he was surprised by the intensity of people’s emotions. He explained that when he first arrived in Washington, the economy was in trouble and people were understandably very angry about losing their jobs and sometimes homes. “Emotions are completely understandable. If you lose your job, you’re going to be sad, you are going to be angry but it also sometimes makes running the government hard and the government should always be very careful and thoughtful and study and look at the facts. Sometimes, when there’s a lot of emotion around it’s hard to do that and bad policy gets made. I guess I was taken back four years ago by how much emotion was directed at the Congress which I had just arrived to serve.”
His calm personality and thoughtful approach most likely helped him continue to focus on his goals during this tough time. When asked about his biggest accomplishment so far, he mentioned “having participated in steering the country’s economic policy” and “getting our economy stabilized.”
Emotions did find their way into the interview when we talked about his family. He has two daughters close to my age. One of the hardest parts of his job for him is being away from his family. He said he relies on his wife, Mary, a lot. He also admitted to feeling guilty sometimes for missing events such as swim meets, but believed that his family supported him. “I think my daughters understand what I’m doing is important for the country.” When they are able to spend time together as a family, they enjoy outdoor activities such as kayaking and hiking.
Being a congressman and having young children, I wanted to ask him a few questions on education. I asked him how parents are supposed to save for their children’s college education when their expenses keep rising much faster than their income. Congressman Himes mentioned that he was proud of the government programs that offer more student loans at lower interest rates. He also explained that the government allowed students who enter lower paying professions, such as teachers, to pay back their debt in smaller amounts. Although sometimes difficult, he also believed that Americans could do a better job saving money for college. Finally, he thought the government had to make sure that colleges and universities do a better job in controlling costs. “One thing the government needs to do is we need to be tougher on universities and colleges about the fact that they raise their prices every year far more than any other prices go up like food and energy and all the other stuff we buy – what we call inflation when the price rises.” “So, they get a lot of money from the government to do research and so I think the government needs to turn around to them and say we’re going to penalize you with the money you get for research programs and that sort of thing unless you find ways to keep your costs under control.”
I knew that Congress Himes’ daughters attended Greenwich public schools and wanted to know if he thought that the United States offers the best possible public education. He didn’t think we did and focused on the differences among communities and countries. “No. In fact, you put your finger on one of the most important issues I think we should be focused on. The truth is that in some communities, like the one you live in and the one I live in, we offer superb public education.” He mentioned Bridgeport as a city which did not provide the best possible education. “You just drive a couple miles east of where you live to Bridgeport and the public schools are very bad. Half of the kids aren’t graduating. So, some of our schools in this country are really, really good and some of them are really pretty bad. And I care about that for at least two reasons. One is we like to tell ourselves that every American kid has the same opportunity. No, they don’t. If you go to the Greenwich High School you have very different opportunities than if you go to a high school in Bridgeport and that shouldn’t be true. We should really work to make our public education system better. And, it is also important because our kids today, all of us today, are competing with people all over the world. That wasn’t true 50 years ago. Now, it’s true. And you know what, the Koreans are doing their homework and working hard and the Chinese are learning engineering and getting good math scores and if we are going to be competitive, we’re going to do a much better job of educating our people.”
Personally, I wondered if he thought the focus on standardized test prevented us from getting a well-rounded education and from competing with other countries when it comes to subjects like science. He believes that it is essential to test our kids but thinks we do it a bit too much.
Finally, after hearing so many people talk about gun control and Newtown, I wanted to hear what Congressman Himes thought about gun control and what he thought could be done to prevent another shooting. He talked about not being able to eliminate violence but being able to take steps to help reduce the frequency of it. He thought we needed better gun regulation policies. He did made it clear that he supported people having guns but not did not think civilians should be able to own the same type of military gun that was used in the Newtown shootings. He also thought that better background checks to make sure someone is not a criminal or violent before allowing the person to purchase a gun would help. He also stressed that we needed to make it easier for people with emotional troubles to get help. “I think we could a better job of making it easier for a parent to say my child is in trouble, you know, doesn’t have any friends, does nothing but play video games all day, help me. And, make insurance companies willing to cover that kind of care.”
He also thought people should reach out to others. “I mean all of us know somebody who’s lonely and depressed and we all have an obligation, I think, to go to that person and say ‘How are you doing, hey, if you want to talk?’ You know, just make them feel more connected. People do horrible things when they’re disconnected. They feel like no one cares and they get a lot of anger.”
I wanted to follow-up on his comment about video games. I asked him if he thought violent video games led people to be violent. He told me he wasn’t an expert in this area but thought, as a society, we might be sending the wrong signals to our kids by sometimes by embracing violence. “I do it too. You know, at the end of the movie when Arnold Schwarzenegger shoots up the bad guys, I cheer. And, I think that’s too bad, you know, because it does send a signal to our kids and each other that violence is a solution, that it’s something to be cheered rather than something, in all circumstances, to be rejected.”
We finished the interview talking about police officers at schools. Congressman Himes didn’t think that having police officers at every school was the right answer. He thought that maybe it made sense at schools with older children. At the elementary school level, he thought that principals should decide whether the money should be spent on police officers or maybe more guidance counselors to help kids with emotional troubles.
I really enjoyed speaking with Congressman Himes and learning about him, his responsibilities, and his views on the various issues. Being a congressman truly requires a huge time commitment. I was surprised to learn how many people he met with throughout the day here in Connecticut and in Washington, D.C. He seemed truly eager and willing to meet with everyone and to hear their concerns no matter what the issue or which political party one belongs to. Just think, he was willing to meet with me, a ten year old!