Two men who made a difference

This election matters. We’ve heard that mantra endlessly from both presidential campaigns. But in fact every election matters – it matters whom we choose to represent us at every level of government. It’s not just what positions candidates take on the issues that count but what kinds of people they are and whether they are ready to engage in the nitty-gritty work of government. The deaths on the same day recently of two former members of the House of Representatives reminded us of what a difference an individual can make.

Paul Rogers, Democrat of Florida, became known in his 24 years in Congress as “Mr. Health.” In his career, he was able to effect wholesale change, touching all Americans, in the field of health policy. Matthew Rinaldo, Republican of New Jersey, though instrumental in the passage of legislation, was more of a hands-on guy in his district, where he concentrated on retail change. Both were non-ideological workhorses who crossed party lines to improve the lives of the people they served.

Rogers was the driving force behind the National Cancer Act, the 1971 law that implemented the “War on Cancer.” Over the years since its passage, the dollars going into cancer research and treatment have succeeded in lowering the incidence of the disease and the number of deaths of those diagnosed. There is probably not a family in America that hasn’t been affected by the progress wrought by that act of Congress. (Ironically, the nonsmoker Rogers died of lung cancer.)

The year before he successfully pushed through the Cancer Act, Rogers led the fight on the House floor for passage of the Clean Air Act, the landmark legislation that scrubbed the country’s polluted skies. When Rogers was making the case for the bill, he drew the link between environmental factors and cancer in persuading his colleagues to support stiff regulation. The Safe Drinking Water Act also succeeded with his strong sponsorship.

As chairman of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment during his final four congressional terms, Rogers helped pass numerous pieces of legislation promoting health and protecting the environment. Health equity became an issue of particular concern to him. After his death, Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the New York Times that Rogers believed “that all lives are equally valuable and everyone has a right to experience access to the best possible health.”

When Rogers left Congress in 1980, the country was cleaner and healthier because he had been there. But the Floridian was no doctrinaire liberal – far from it. He scored high marks on the report cards of various conservative organizations, representing the majority views of his West Palm Beach district. He was one of a vanishing breed – a conservative Southern Democrat.

Matt Rinaldo, though seated across the aisle of the House chamber, sat near Rogers on the political spectrum as a member of another vanishing breed – a moderate Northern Republican. A member of the minority for all of his two decades in Congress, it’s harder to point to successful legislation championed by Rinaldo, though he took pride in a bill prohibiting loans from the Export Import Bank to countries harboring terrorists and another bill limiting the number of commercials in children’s television programming.

Instead of taking on major issues, Rinaldo used his time in Congress to work on the problems of the people back home. He traveled to the towns of central New Jersey every weekend, listening to the fears and frustrations of his constituents. In Washington, when the House session ended, he retreated to his office where he spent the evening calling back the folks who had telephoned that day, assuring them he would get their Medicare payments straightened out or their veterans’ benefits coming promptly. To the person on the other end, those calls provided a lifeline.

Leaving office in 1992, Rinaldo complained about the increasing partisanship that made it hard for someone like him to serve in Congress. His centrist brand of Republicanism was no longer acceptable to many in his party. Paul Rogers had suffered the same kind of criticism from Democrats while he was there, and in the years after he left the House, Rogers found the deterioration of the discourse distressing. It would be hard for either man to get elected in today’s polarized politics.

Suppose that had been true when they ran the first time? The Congress, the country and their constituents would have been deprived of the work of two fine public servants – two men whose elections mattered.

Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at

Copyright 2008, Steven and Cokie Roberts. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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