Bipartisan Congress to Campus Event Tackles the Future of Politics

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The Colgate Vote Project (CVP) brought former congressmen Peter Smith (R-Vt.) and William Enyard (D-Ill.) together for a discussion that ranged from campaigning and partisanship to voter suppression and term limits. The Feb. 8 event, Congress to Campus Community Forum, was moderated by CVP team leaders Eliza Lloyd ’22 and Samuel Adgie ’22.

During Smith’s term as a representative for Vermont (1988–1990), he served on the House of Education and Labor Committee as well as the House Government Operations Committee. Education was of particular importance to him, given that, in 1970, he founded the Community College of Vermont, a member of the Vermont state college system. 

Enyard became a congressman in the Illinois delegation at age 63, after a well-established career as a practicing attorney, an Illinois National Guard military lawyer, and adjutant general of Illinois. He served on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Agriculture Committee between 2013 and 2015. 

Enyard classified Smith and himself as “odd ducks” in the political world, each only serving a single term and having careers largely outside of politics. As such, they framed the forum by acknowledging their ability to honestly address issues facing politics today and what they learned from their time in office.

The men focused partially on how politics are changing. In the 1980s, Smith raised $22,500 for his winning campaign and $70,000 for his losing campaign two years later. By 2013, Enyard was spending $1.4 million when he first ran and $2 million on his second bid for office. They related the bigger budgets to the rise of media in any given campaign’s success. 

“Money is one of the biggest issues of its type facing the Congress,” Smith said. “To put my service in context, nine weeks before the election in 1990, I was ahead by 23 points. Nine weeks later, I lost by 17 points… Sure I started a college and I was very popular, but not popular enough to have someone call me a liar 72 times a day on every television station.” 

The congressmen were also asked to address voter suppression and the legitimacy of mail-in ballots in light of the 2020 election controversies.

“We’ve had mail-in ballots in this country since the Civil War. The first two elections that I voted in, I was on active duty in the United States Air Force, and both of those ballots were cast by mail,” Enyard said. “If these Republicans who are speaking so wildly about mail-in ballots really banish mail-in ballots, do you know who it would really hurt most? Military people and students.”

Enyard denounced the idea that election fraud is a systemic problem, painting fraudulent social media ads and campaign claims as a far larger issue. Smith echoed this sentiment, acknowledging the strength of the national election system and citing gerrymandering and voter suppression as its true weaknesses.

One student question pressed on human rights issues related to BIPOC and queer communities, and both men acknowledged an increasing urgency to address them in Congress.

“I think the country is at a real inflection point on issues of education, health, income and housing insecurity defined, frankly, by income and race,” Enyard said.

Smith noted that, while we know the data around mental health, abuse, and discrimination, and the consequences they have for society at large, he believes humanizing these issues will be the key to their eventual resolution.

“This is about real people, and we need to help them find networks, find advocates, and be able to tell their stories in a way that will humanize and create change, over time, more than the data will,” he said. 

While there was a certain pessimism for partisan politics built upon high-budget campaigns today, the men seemed hopeful about the potential of future Congressional representatives. 

Smith said, “Your generation is going to be the generation that will help us reframe… We want a healthier society where people treat each other with dignity and respect.”