U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., announced this month he would not seek reelection this year after serving nearly 40 years in the House of Representatives. By any measure that is an extraordinary political career, but it is all the more so for what he accomplished during his tenure. And it’s all the more important to point out that in this strange gloaming moment when political success is measured by the strength of opposing polarity, George was — is — a man who insisted on getting things done. That is what politics is for. It is the art of the impossible. Or in the words of Ted Kennedy about his older brother, “I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘why not?'”
That is not necessarily a liberal precept. George was open to reforming the Endangered Species Act, worked with the teachers union over education reform, and empowered the Chemical Safety Board to investigate industrial accidents rather than litigate them. (A recent reminder of that legacy, and George’s fight for clean drinking water, came during the recent accident in West Virginia). And he always did it, whether in the minority or the majority, with Republican partners — even President George W. Bush.
George represented my home town until redistricting went into effect last year. He was my Congressman when I worked for him in the late 1990s. In the arc of his career my service wasn’t very long, but it felt like a compressed graduate education in American politics. Every day, every minute on the job was freighted with import and insight. I like to think I had the good sense to recognize the privileged position I had then, working for a senior Member of Congress, and one so good and dedicated to his job. (If I didn’t then, I sure as hell do now.)
He cultivated good people working for him as well, and they form an awesome alumni association: Ilir Zherka, a legislative counsel, most recently led the effort to get voting rights for the District of Columbia. Charles Barone, an education policy expert, continues his work for Democrats for Education Reform. John Laurence, long George’s chief of staff, became Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff during her Speakership. I’m amazed that I worked with them.
George demonstrated what could get done and that has informed my general optimism about politics. Working for him more than 15 years ago I saw him pass legislation to extend health care to poor children. Two administrations later, the Affordable Care Act extended those same benefits to most Americans. The impossible became possible. That’s what politics is for.