Senator Munson stopped at the desk and was introduced to Ashley. The board member talked Ashley up, sang her praises as a hard-working and capable manager. Munson seemed surprised that someone as young (and gorgeous, radiant, etc.) as Ashley was in charge of the place. He smiled and shook her hand. Ashley introduced me and Ryan, and we traded pleasantries. “You probably don’t remember me, but we have met before, Senator Munson,” Ashley told him.
Munson laughed, his smile starting to look a bit desperate. “I meet so many people, it’s impossible to remember them all,” he explained. “Sometimes I meet maybe a hundred people a day, and every one of those pushes an earlier one out, you know.”
Ashley told him that she had met with him in 2001, and he had given her a state scholarship to help pay for college. Munson thought a moment; that was the last year before the redrawing of the district, making Ashley the last student from Clear Spring to benefit from a Munson scholarship. Now his smile grew sincere, even a little proud. “I’m happy to see you doing so well,” he told her. “It means I made the right decision. The taxpayers’ money was well-spent in your case.”
Senator Munson shook his head. “I love giving out those scholarships. That’s what I was doing today. I interviewed twelve students for it. It’s one of the best parts of my job, but they’re probably going to take it away from us.”
I finally spoke up. “Why is that?”
“The ACLU is challenging it,” he told me. I asked him why the ACLU would object to the government handing out college scholarships to people. “Well, obviously I’m not qualified to decide who gets scholarships,” he said, laughing, but obviously bitter about it.
The issue apparently is over individual legislators having the power to decide who receives the money. It’s not an unreasonable objection. What if Senator Munson had been handing out scholarships to his friends and family all these years? That wouldn’t be fair. But that’s not what’s been happening. Munson obviously takes this duty seriously, and he was genuinely gratified to meet Ashley again and see someone who has made the most of one of his scholarships.
I told Senator Munson that I was a member of neither major party, and that my political philosophy was pretty liberal, but that I was disturbed that groups like the ACLU, whose efforts I applaud a little over half the time, are standing up to keep him from giving people money for college. To me, it seems like one of the best ways the government can possibly spend its tax revenue. And, as Munson explained, he as an individual can make things happen much quicker for applicants for whom time is a factor. He cited the example of an older woman who had recently fled an abusive marriage, who needed tuition for night school classes that were starting just a few days after her meeting with him. He was able to get her the scholarship that allowed her to pursue her education, when a scholarship committee would have been unable to move fast enough to help her.
“If the blacks and the Republicans would stick together, we’d be okay,” Munson said, smiling insecurely. He’s not an artful politician. It’s easy to see why he never moved beyond the Maryland legislature, assuming he ever entertained larger ambitions.
All of this is really beside the point. The most important thing I took away from my chat with Senator Munson, who left at the end of our scholarship talk to shake more hands and meet more potential voters in his forever ongoing campaign for re-election, is this: We, average citizens of no special importance, were able to meet and talk openly with one of our elected representatives. He listened to us, he shared his point of view, he answered our questions. Don Munson and I disagree on a lot of stuff, and even if we were closer to one another politically, the length of his tenure in Annapolis is all the reason I need to vote for someone else. He’s precisely the sort of entrenched career politician I want to permanently retire. He’s also a very nice guy. Even knowing I wasn’t a member of his party or a potential campaign contributor, he engaged me in a friendly conversation, and we found at least one thing we agreed on.
This is how representative government is supposed to work. Don Munson may have served in the statehouse far beyond his expiration date, but he remains an attentive and accessible representative of his constituents. His office in Hagerstown is located in a crumbling brick building on Church Street, with a simple white sign identifying it beside the door. If someone in his district has an issue he may be able to help with, he’s only a phone call away. How often do the citizens of Iran or China get a chance to chat up members of their governments? Shit, how often do Americans, for that matter?
When he left, Munson told me it was nice to meet me (he and I have met once before, not counting the fourth grade field trip, but that was many years ago), and made an awkward motion to shake my hand, only to pull up and give me a smile and a wave instead. Did he think, even after the pleasant talk we had, that I would not shake the hand of a Republican politician? I hope not. On Saturday I would have.