The event is sponsored by the JSU American Democracy Project Team and Congress to Campus. This year is the first time the program has come to JSU.
Former Rep. Sue Kelly, a New York Republican, and former Rep. Earl Hutto, a Democrat from Florida, told their stories and answered questions in four classes Monday. They will end the series of events today with a Constitution Day celebration at 9:15 a.m. on the 11th floor of the Houston Cole Library. The event is open to the public.
Both former members of Congress had improbable stories to tell. Hutto was a radio broadcaster and Kelly a small-business owner before deciding to enter politics.
“I am the only florist that has been elected to Congress,” Kelly said, adding that she ran four small businesses before her political career.
Kelly ran for office in 1994 after she said she couldn’t find anyone else to run in place of the incumbent Republican congressman who had decided not to run. She represented New York’s 19th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 until 2007, losing her seat to a Democrat.
Hutto, originally from Midland City, Ala., said he was the first in his family to graduate from high school, then later from college. He worked in radio, and was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1972. He was elected to U.S. House in 1978, where he remained until retiring in 1994.
In a political science class Monday afternoon, a student asked Kelly and Hutto to comment about the current state of Congress. Both former representatives responded that it takes too much money to win an election today and that partisanship is rampant.
“The way I’ve been putting it, is that when a person gets elected to Congress, as a Republican or as a Democrat, they should go to Washington with the idea ‘I’m an American,’” Hutto said.
During a press conference Monday afternoon Kelly said the impression she got from meeting some representatives in Washington didn’t match what she’d heard of them from media reports.
“You find out that there’s nobody in Congress that isn’t pretty passionate about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and how to represent their people,” Kelly said. “It’s a hard job ... and most of them are pretty good people.”
Speaking to a class Monday, Kelly warned students about the dangers of pulling one’s news from a single source, and recommended the website factcheck.org as a way to verify statements in the news.
She also warned against watching comedy television shows to get ones news.
“Don’t listen to Jon Stewart and all those people,” Kelly told students.
Kelly declined a 2006 interview by Stephen Colbert, host of the Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report," for the series' regular segment “Better Know a District.”
Colbert later interviewed Kelly’s opponent, who won the race by a slim margin. Colbert has said Kelly’s refusal of the interview cost her the election, and used the phrase “The Colbert Bump” to express the jump in numbers politicians receive from an appearance on his show.
Both Jon Stewart’s "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report" are considered left-leaning shows.
Asked in a press conference Monday if she regrets turning down the interview, Kelly said “Not at all. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were out to do everything they could to embarrass whoever went on. I made a choice. I made a choice not to go on because they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Kelly said she believes it was her 2004 and 2006 votes on a Constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage that spawned a public relations campaign against her and cost her the election in 2007.
Both candidates said the questions they fielded from JSU students Monday showed they are engaged and thoughtful. Kelly explained that the questions showed students’ ability to think for themselves.
“The fact that they’re training their minds to think about politics, and they’re trying to set up a sieve to get fact from fantasy,” Kelly said.
JSU senior Tatiana Scott sat through three classes Monday in which Kelly and Hutto spoke. Scott said she enjoyed hearing their personal stories, and that “I would have thought that both of them had political science backgrounds, but they don’t.”
Glen Browder, former congressman and current emeritus professor of American democracy at JSU, explained the purpose of the Congress to Campus program is to put a human face on Congress for students, and to encourage them to engage in civic life.
Lori Owens, head of the political science department at JSU, said professors and the program aim to get students “to understand how important and how rewarding it can be if you engage in an activity or project that you feel passionate about.”
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.