Lessons on Representation from Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

Lessons on Representation from Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

I was reminded today that not everyone’s life is full of digital wonders (and headaches), of things that chirp and flash and vibrate throughout the day. The conversation was about urgent communications, and the concern was that an urgent message had been sent by email, rather than with a phone call or a text message. I had assumed that the “sender” simply wasn’t following proper procedures. But I was wrong.

It wasn’t that the sender didn’t want to get the urgent message delivered urgently. It was that the sender assumed that, since email comes to smartphones, an email would deliver an urgent message urgently.

Besides . . . the sender didn’t have any means of texting(!), and was reluctant to call and interrupt something.

In that brief conversation, I saw another world . . . one I used to live in, back before we acquired cellphones. But it’s been a long time, and I truly had forgotten such a world still existed.

Shame on me.

Moments like this one reinforce for me how difficult it is to be a true representative of the people. Even with the best of intentions, elected officials can think they are addressing the needs of all of their constituents, and simply be wrong. Not because they are willfully ignorant. Simply because they (and we) are . . . well, ignorant.

Ignorant of the way life is for many of our constituents.

One of the notions of representation that often plays an important role in elections, but rarely gets careful consideration, is the notion of descriptive representation. Advocates of descriptive representation argue that, in order for a legislative body to be functionally representative, its membership must be something of a microcosm of the people it serves. If there are doctors as well as day laborers in the community, there should be doctors and day laborers in the legislature. If there are skilled tradespeople and stay-at-home parents in the community, there should be skilled tradespeople and stay-at-home parents in the legislature.

The most radical of these advocates would insist on proportionality. They would tell us that since Florida’s population is 51.1 percent female, for example, that the legislature should be 51.1 percent female . . . or at least something much more than 25 percent, which is the case today.

Clearly, among numerous dimensions, our legislature is not representative in these terms. Indeed, we can say more generally that our country’s elected legislatures at all levels rarely reflect the diversity of the citizens they represent.

Descriptive representation is not, of course, any guarantee of policies that represent the needs or wants of all people. Being a doctor doesn’t mean one understands the experience of all doctors, any more than being a stay-at-home parent means one understands all the experiences of stay-at-home parents.

Still, in the absence of anyone who is at least some experience as a doctor (or a day laborer, or a tradesperson, or a stay-at-home parent), it is much more difficult for a legislature to craft wise legislation.

This point has been brought home by Florida’s new Senate president, Andy Gardiner. Among Sen. Gardiner’s previous legislative achievements is a bill that attempts to support parents of children with disabilities in their efforts to secure appropriate education for their children. And one of now-President Gardiner’s priorities for the coming session is an overhaul of the “special diploma” designed for teens with disabilities.

One might be grateful for such attention to the needs of children and young adults with disabilities. I certainly am.

But one also might ask why this has been a priority for Sen. Gardiner.

The answer may be more complex than this, but one key component, almost certainly, is a simple fact: besides being a forty-something male, a married man, a baseball fan and a corporate vice president, Sen. Gardiner is the father of a child with a disability.

Sen. Gardiner’s world may, or may not, buzz and chirp and whistle like mine, but I know it echoes with questions and hopes and concerns and struggles and disappointments and triumphs that all parents experience, but that parents of children with disabilities frequently experience with a greater intensity, and with greater anxiety, than parents of “normally abled” kids.

In order for a legislature to serve all of its citizens, the legislators somehow must find a way to enter into the worlds of all of them. We don’t need quotas, to be sure . . . but we need advocates . . . and open minds and hearts.