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Op-ed: What do we expect from elected officials?

What do city councilmembers, mayors, state representatives, governors, members of Congress, and the president all have in common?

They are all elected, in one manner or another, to represent the people who live in the areas they serve. That means all of the people — even those who voted against them, those who did not vote at all, and those people (such as children) who are not eligible to vote.

But the question of “representation” is a tricky one.

Are people elected to be mindless robots, merely taking polls to find out how a majority of people in their districts stand on issues, and then casting their votes to reflect what the majority opinion was at that time?

Or are they elected, based on the type of people they are and their general views on things, so that we can entrust them to make intelligent decisions on issues about which they may have more information than we do?

Actually, it’s a little of both.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., who is serving his last term in office by his own choice, is facing the wrath of many people in his state for voting to convict former President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican, in Trump’s most recent impeachment trial.

Toomey has said some very negative things about his party’s former standard bearer. Among them:

“His betrayal of the Constitution and his oath of office required conviction.”

“He began with dishonest, systematic attempts to convince supporters that he had won. His lawful, but unsuccessful, legal challenges failed due to lack of evidence.”

“A lawless attempt to retain power by a president was one of the founders’ greatest fears motivating the inclusion of the impeachment authorities in the U.S. Constitution.”

As a result of these statements and his vote to convict Mr. Trump, the Washington County (PA) Republican Party has voted to censure Toomey. David Ball, chairman of that county organization, said the following: “We did not send him (Toomey) there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to ‘do the right thing’ or whatever he said he was doing. We sent him there to represent us.”

And therein lies the rub.

How often and to what extent should a U.S. Senator, or any elected official, use his or her own judgment, experience and perhaps even access to confidential information, to cast a vote with which a majority of constituents might disagree?

I would argue that it doesn’t happen often enough.

I have long believed that a major cause of the gridlock that besets Washington is that too many members of Congress and Senators, Democrats and Republicans, march in lockstep with party leadership. “If the President is from my party,” they might say, “then I will support everything he or she says or does, regardless of whether I think it’s correct, because that’s what I’m supposed to do.” And if the President is from the other party, they do the opposite.

Sen. Toomey obviously felt that former Pres. Trump’s actions went too far, and Toomey was not afraid to say so. He knew that many folks in his party would not be happy with him, going against “their” President. But he followed his conscience and voted to “do the right thing.”

I would argue that that is not only his right as a U.S. Senator — but his responsibility. “Yes,” many of his GOP constituents would say, “but he knew how we felt about not wanting Pres. Trump impeached or convicted. He should have voted the way we wanted him to vote.”

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is facing a little of this from within his own party for questioning some of Pres. Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief effort. Manchin wants a more targeted approach to avoid the mistakes of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020, which saw billions of dollars going to undeserving people and businesses.

I admire any elected official, Supreme Court Justice, policeman, teacher or average citizen who stands up (but does not resort to illegal acts or violence) for what he or she believes is fair and proper, even if that is an unpopular thing. Each one does so at his or her own peril. Usually, office-holders only face the prospect of being defeated at the polls the next time. Today, they and their families could face danger from people upset over votes, taking matters into their own violent hands.

Sen. Toomey had the right to vote the way he did. The Republicans in Pennsylvania have a right to be upset with him. The voters of Pennsylvania will eventually decide what kind of a person they want to succeed Sen. Toomey when he leaves office.

Will it be a person whose judgment they respect, or merely a person who will do their bidding?

I’m rooting for the former.

***

Roger Sheppard is a Parkersburg native and former VP/GM of TheNewsCenter, which operates WTAP and its sister stations. He also worked as a journalist at The Parkersburg News, The Charleston Daily Mail, KDKA-TV and WOWK-TV.

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