Mare Barker goes to Washington!
It started with a phone call on January 23rd, from Congressman Paul D. Tonko. An invitation to attend the State of the Union Address (SOTU) in Washington D.C.! And so began the whirlwind that was my adventure to our nation’s Capitol!
I honestly did not know how to respond to his invitation, not fully realizing the opportunity that was being presented to me. When I returned his call to accept, I had to ask him, “Why Me?” a question that truly had me puzzled. His explained “…knowing the emphasis that President Obama planned to place on small businesses and the place of women in those businesses, it made me come to mind. Being a successful woman in a small business for the past 36 years and who is active in her business community made me a good choice.” The majority of us who own small businesses put one foot in front of the other each day with the intention of always moving forward. Some days we make progress and some days we don’t, but every day we start out with the intent to improve and grow. We naturally try to do what’s best for our own business but I believe that choosing to operate in a community like Saratoga Springs comes with the responsibility of also doing what’s best for our community as a whole. Volunteering our time and resources to our business organizations is essential as well. It is sometimes overwhelming but always rewarding in the end. To be recognized for following these beliefs is a humbling experience.
My sister, Trudy Lehner, is well acquainted with Washington DC and accompanied me on my journey. We traveled by train, arriving on Tuesday afternoon and hurried to our hotel to get ready to meet Congressman Tonko and his staff. I was sure to wear my Saratoga 150 lapel pin! We made our way through the underground maze that connects all the House of Representative’s buildings to the Capitol Building, where the SOTU would take place. The Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn buildings house the offices of all our Representatives and services. Walking through the long hallways that seemed never to end I felt like I was on a movie set! Each doorway is flanked by an American flag and the State flag of the Congressman whose office it is. There is a bronze plaque of the appropriate state seal with the words “Welcome, Please come in.” I realized how few of us have the opportunity to take advantage of this welcome. Walking into a truly warm greeting by the staff immediately put me at ease. The staff including David Mastrangelo; Director of Operations, Sean Magers; Director of Communications and my guide, Clinton Britt; the Congressman’s Chief of Staff, Emily Dahorny; Legal Correspondent, and all the other staffers and interns gave me a briefing of what to expect and insight into their individual roles and routines. They answered all my questions with patience and a warm sense of humor. It was clear to me that they all enjoy their work and appreciate working with Congressman Tonko. They all shared how the Congressman works along with them, reviewing each request or question himself, discussing it at length with the appropriate staffer, hearing their opinions and strategizing together for the benefit of their constituents. There is a team like sense of purpose that usually always comes from the top down, a compliment to Congressman Tonko’s leadership ability.
The Congressman returned from a vote in the Capitol building, gave us a warm welcome and whisked us away for a photo on the Capitol steps. He and Sean lead us back through the maze giving us a running commentary of who, what, and where we were seeing. The Congressman was sure to introduce me as his guest to each and every person along the way. It was a mind boggling feeling to be walking the same path as so many of our countries leaders. It was as if you could feel the sense of history along the way. Overwhelming doesn’t even begin to describe it! We made it back to the offices where we talked about the history of Impressions, the changes we’ve seen over the past 36 years, the ups, downs and the daily challenges we face in our business.
The Congressman had to leave to attend another vote before they closed the House floor for a security sweep before the evening’s events. He would then enter the chamber and claim his seat for the President’s speech. For us, it was time for an early dinner. Rather than leave the building, we headed to the deli in the basement, not wanting to miss a minute of this experience. We shared our dinner with the staff in Congressman Tonko’s personal office and it seemed somehow irreverent but right! We had a lot of great conversations and I learned a lot from these very bright and enthusiastic folks.
Finally it was 7:30 and time to head down to the House Chambers where the State of the Union Address would take place. Sean was able to escort me as far as the Capitol Subway and then I was on my own. I followed the crowd that included Congressman and other guests. We had to go through several security checkpoints and finally I entered that historic room’s balcony overlooking the floor where history is made and decisions are formed that affect all our lives. The room is beautiful, but not intimidating. At first it does not seem that big but then our countries leaders start filtering in on the floor and the guests start filling up the balcony. I realize it is a very big hall to accommodate the volume of attendees. I was seated in Gallery 9 with a great view of the podium with others that included a Senior VP from a higher education association, a woman who works for UPS in Washington and a young man who is an aid to a Virginia Representative who kept me informed with a running commentary of who’s who and what’s what! I notice that Congressman Tonko has made his way from his seat to the aisle below me to check on me and wave.
As the room begins to fill up, I notice Vice President, Joe Biden and Speaker of the House, John Boehner enter the hall and officially start the evening. They announce the Senators, then the Justices, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President’s Cabinet among others. The gavel drops, the room gets very quiet as the First Lady takes her seat on the balcony and the President enters. There is a lot of cheering, hand shaking and embracing as he makes his way to the podium.
I scanned the room to notice that Sean Hannity is sitting three or four seats from of me, the First Lady and her guests are 20 seats from me and 10 seats beyond that, Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson. It struck me that here was a perfect example of the diversity of attendees and here I was, one of them! As I looked around, I saw so many faces that we see on a daily basis in the media and it hits me, as they joke around and converse, they really are just like us. They are civil servants that are there because of the faith we put in them.
The president began his speech filled with hopes and promises. I found myself wishing he would achieve even some of them. As with all of us, I agreed and applauded for some, and questioned others. For close to an hour and twenty minutes, there was a lot of standing and sitting back down, applause when you felt it was appropriate and in a flash it was over. We had to remain in the Gallery as the floor emptied. I made my way back to the office on my own (thanks Dad for the good sense of direction) The Congressman headed to the “Car Wash”, a nickname for the gauntlet of media present in the Cannon Rotunda (I think that’s the correct name!) Sean led us down to the rotunda to connect with the Congressman. It was fun to watch recognizable media personalities and elected officials vying for a minute of each other’s time. Congressman Tonko asked me to join him in his interview with YNN, a nerve racking experience but a great opportunity for me, Impressions and Saratoga Springs.
And then it was over… A day that started at 4:15 am at home ended with the Congressman walking us down a snowy Washington street to our hotel at midnight! What a day. A day I won’t soon forget. I learned firsthand an incredible amount about how our government works, got to voice some concerns that we in small business share, met some wonderful people and shared a once in a lifetime experience with other Americans.
WOW, how lucky am I?! A daughter of German Immigrants that moved a young family with 4 children in 1957, to the United States of America for a better life. I was born the year later and my parents always joking explained that they had to have one child who could be president. Here was the closest chance to that I will ever have or want! Dad, I know you would be as amazed as I was that I got to share in such a historic event. Thanks for having the courage to come to a new country, affording me this opportunity.
There are also articles in The Times Union, The Saratogian, and News 10 did a story!