Common ground across the aisle
“There is no such thing as Brooklyn bourbon!” insisted U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to a packed room at UofL’s McConnell Center recently. The senator had just been given a bottle of Widow Jane bourbon made in Brooklyn, New York, by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who said the spirit was produced just blocks away from the senator’s New York home. It was a great moment — not least because the personal chemistry the two men shared was palpable. They truly appeared to enjoy one another’s company.
(Schumer was on campus to give a talk at the McConnell Center.)
Since arriving in Louisville, I find myself constantly thinking about and confronted by politics — and having my assumptions upended time and again. We are told by the media that we have never been more divided as a country politically, that we cannot get along, cannot work with one another. But the encounter I watched on stage at UofL suggested a different, more complicated, reality. This was confirmed further when one of my guests at the McConnell Center event — my distant cousin, former U.S. Representative Ben Chandler, whose politics bend more toward Senator Schumer’s than Senator McConnell’s — bounded backstage and joked warmly with both men.
I have had similar, powerful experiences with some of our students and younger alums and have been impressed by the political involvements of them all.
For example, I was on a mock interview team for 1L students with Brandeis Law alumnus Alex White (2012). Alex has established himself as a leading young member of the plaintiffs’ bar in Louisville. For him, representing personal injury clients is almost religion. Alex himself was in two accidents and has battled insurance companies personally. He clearly takes this zeal into his battles on behalf of clients. Alex spoke movingly to me of his desire to protect the interests of those most vulnerable, including those clients who did not speak English well (he even tried to hire as a law clerk a Spanish-speaking 1L following the interview).
Alex told me he is running as a Republican for state Senate because of his strong commitment to this issue and to others, like the separation of powers. For him, I could see, politics rises above party loyalties.
Alex showed me that our supposed political divides can be less important than a shared commitment to the issues that matter to us all. Alex and I disagree on almost every “hot button” national issue, but his obvious integrity and commitment to serving the interests of all Kentucky citizens moved me so much that I soon sent him a check for his campaign.
I was similarly impressed at a Louisville Bar Association event where I met Ronnie Mills, a second-year student who told me that he went to law school to enter politics — he wants to be president of the United States one day. I had to admire that kind of self-confidence!
Soon thereafter, Ronnie and first-year student Alixis Russell came to my office and proposed a discussion series for the 2018-19 academic year co-sponsored by the Federalist Society for the right and the American Constitution Society for the left. The drive for finding common ground was clearly important to them.
At the same LBA event, I ran into graduating student John Weber, who continued to share his deep knowledge of and interest in Kentucky and national politics, with views markedly free of partisan rancor. Once again, my conversations with Ronnie, Alixis and John showed me that the stark left-right divisions we hear from the media were not being played out in my experiences with our law students and alums, and that mere fact gave me hope.
This kind of ideological complexity is a quality I associate with Justice Brandeis, and it made me think that in ways large and small we are serving his intellectual legacy at the law school.
The pundits are telling us that 2018 will be the Year of the Women in politics. And while Kentucky has one of the nation’s lowest percentages of women in elected office (at about 17 percent), Brandeis women graduates are well represented in the state legislature.
State Representative McKenzie Cantrell (2012), who represents House District 38 is said to have knocked on every door in her district three times during her first election. And State Representative Sannie Overly (1993), representing House District 72, became the first woman in House leadership in the history of the commonwealth when she was elected House Majority Caucus Chair. I met McKenzie at a faculty event before I formally began, in November 2017. I have not yet met Sannie but look forward to meeting her and other members of the Metropolitan Caucus after the legislative session. In the years ahead, I expect that some of our current female students will follow them into politics. I certainly hope so.