Responding To The Man With The Tinfoil Hat

Yesterday I heard someone describe a person as needing to put on a tinfoil hat.  It was supposed to be a funny put-down — but it really wasn’t very funny to me.

In 1981, when I was fresh out of college and working for U.S. Rep. Chalmers P. Wylie in Washington, D.C. as a legislative aide, one of my jobs was to stay late on weeknights and prepare responses to constituent correspondence.  Mr. Wylie took his job seriously, and he believed that every constituent who took the time to write a letter deserved a thoughtful response.  We would spend hours going through every letter, talking about the response and whether there was something we could do to help.

One of our regular correspondents was a man who, literally, wore a tinfoil hat.  He was a veteran who was convinced that the U.S. government was broadcasting brain waves at him, and he wore a tinfoil hat because he thought it helped.  He wrote letters to try to get Mr. Wylie’s help in stopping the brain wave broadcasts.  I chuckled at his first letter, but they kept coming, usually several a week, and it stopped being funny.  I was worried about what the man might do, but Mr. Wylie said he had been receiving letters from the man for years and he was harmless.  From information in his letters, we learned that the man had been treated at VA hospitals and was an intermittent participant in mental health programs but was suspicious of them, too.

Every week, this poor, tormented man took the time to write a few long letters beseeching us to help him.  Every week we reassured him that there was no evil government program and urged him to please go see a doctor and get medical help.  I felt sorry for him, but there was nothing more we could do . . . and the pleading letters kept coming.

Mental illness is not funny.

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A Bellwether Rematch In The 15th District

One of the more interesting congressional races in the nation is happening in Columbus, in Ohio’s 15th District.  Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy narrowly defeated Republican Steve Stivers in 2008 — she won by 2,311 votes out of 304,000 cast — and the two are squaring off again this year.  If there is going to be an electoral tidal wave that lifts the Republicans to a majority in the House of Representatives, as some are predicting, then Republicans are going to have to win in districts like the 15th. Perhaps for that reason, the contest seems to be getting a fair amount of national attention.

Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy

The conventional wisdom is that the Republican candidate has the edge — although the polling data on the race is limited and pretty dated.  That may in fact be the reality, but I’m not so sure.  The district has changed a lot since my old boss, Republican Chalmers Wylie, routinely won big majorities and coasted to reelection.  The 15th district now includes parts of Columbus, the areas south and west of downtown, the northwest suburbs, Marysville, which is home to The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company and Honda of America Mfg., Inc., and various rural areas.  The white-collar suburbs like Upper Arlington and Worthington, reliably Republican in years past, have become much more politically diverse and unpredictable in the past decade.  The areas south and west of downtown, on the other hand, has been very hard hit by the recession.  Who knows how these areas will react to the current economic and political climate?

The race also is interesting because Kilroy doesn’t seem to be running away from her liberal voting record.  As a freshman member of the House, Kilroy was a consistent supporter of the “health care reform” legislation and other key Democratic policy initiatives (for which UJ is thankful).  She always refers to Stivers as a “long-time bank lobbyist.”  Stivers, on the other hand, seems to be staking out more of a centrist position.  For example, he talks about “fixing” the “heatlh care reform” legislation rather than repealing it outright.  He criticizes Kilroy for killing jobs and being out of step with the views of the district.

Steve Stivers

Moving to the center normally is good politics, and the 15th District will be a good test on whether that remains the case in 2010.  In many recent primaries, voters have rejected the more centrist candidates in favor of those who are voicing more pointed positions on the issues.  This may not be an election where voters have an appetite for middle-of-the-road responses to very serious problems.  If that is the national mood, then Kilroy’s two-fisted defense of her liberal voting record (she received a perfect 100% rating from Americans for Democratic Action in 2009) may strike a responsive chord with the electorate.  On the other hand, if the voters are fed up with federal spending that has massively increased the federal debt and legislative initiatives that haven’t made a dent in unemployment, then Kilroy’s defense of her liberal record will effectively be making Stiver’s case for his own election.  Either way, the 15th District will be one of the bellwether contests to watch on Election Night.