Independence

Howard fingers the “no” button, remembering his campaign promise: “No one will ever tell me how to vote. I’m your man, independent.”

Tall, with a chiseled jaw and brush-cut blond hair, he stands with the ease of one who spends his work days standing in classrooms. Because a resident of the capital, he’s one of the few who can keep doing his day job at least part-time. He shrugged into his plaid sports jacket as he left school this noon, having met with four classes before yielding to a substitute, and arrived just as the session was gaveled to order. He knotted his tie in the car at a red light.

The cavernous House Chamber seems almost like an oversized, elite adult classroom, long rows of polished mahogany mini-desks with comfortable swivel chairs under an elaborate gold ceiling and chandeliers. And unlike his classroom, his place is in the last row back.

The House is at this moment abuzz with idle chatter, as always when a vote is pending. Representatives push the yes or no buttons on their desks, then turn to chat with neighbors, keeping an eye on the tally boards that straddle the Speaker’s dais, where the vote’s progress is displayed in red and green lights.

Some, at least, do it in that order; maybe most. It is only Howard’s third week. He’s still learning, but has already noticed that some always look to the tally boards first, to see how party leaders are voting, and only then push their buttons.

Howard doesn’t need to look. He knows how leadership is voting: Not his way. It is going to be close. “We need your vote on this one,” the majority leader had said at the party caucus yesterday.

They need his vote? That’s not the way it was supposed to be.

An award-winning math teacher and baseball coach, he’d never run for office, never even thought of it. He was popular with both kids and parents, though, so the urgings from admirers that he run for the state legislature had not been a total surprise.

Nor was the vacancy: The newspaper and TV stations had been full of it. Joseph Ward, the state representative from his district, was unmasked as a tool of lobbyists, accepting gifts like vacation travel in return for championing special interests. When his vote hadn’t been sold to a lobbyist, his vote was one party leaders could count on — a docility that might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the messy exposure of the lobbyist business.

Everyone knew when Ward gave in and decided not to seek re-election. Friends put Howard’s name forward. He got a call.

“Howard Andrews? Pete Rogers here. Republican state chairman. Listen, you probably know that Joe Ward is retiring.”

“I’ve heard something like that, Mr. Rogers, although retirement isn’t quite the way I heard it. More like pushed out.”

“Everyone told me you were a truth-teller, Mr. Andrews. Mister Clean. That’s exactly why I’m calling. We want you to run for that seat.”

“That’s flattering, Mr. Rogers, but I may not be your man. Apart from his lobbyist problems, I understand that Mr. Ward was a reliable soldier. One leaders like you could count on.”

“That’s not the kind of candidate we need here, Mr. Andrews. To be brutally candid, we have other soldiers to rely on.” Ward had set the party up for a tough election, he said; to hold this seat they needed someone of absolute independence. “A lot of people tell us you’re the man. We need you.”

It turned into a long conversation, followed by meetings with political stalwarts and hangers-on, then with friends, finally with a supportive school principal. In the end he said yes. He would tell voters, “Nobody’s man but yours.” Print that slogan on his campaign materials. And mean it.

As the chairman had hoped, he won convincingly, was sworn in early this month, got his committee assignments and began learning the ropes.

Now his moment of truth has come – earlier than he’d expected. The lights on the tally board are almost all illuminated. They’re a room’s length away, and he is not yet nimble at counting the reds and greens, but it may well be a draw.

Hal Walker, the majority whip, is making his way up the wide carpeted aisle to the back row.

The galleries that look down on the House floor are almost full. Not packed tight, maybe, but a lot of people watching. The press corps appears to be here in force.

He voted against this bill in committee. It was not an issue he felt passionately about, but after studying the public hearing testimony he decided to oppose it. Not only that: Announced his opposition, a decision mentioned in the newspaper and recorded in the committee report.

It had been a close call, arguably. He can think of reasons he might have supported the bill as it emerged from committee. But his negative vote was publicly made. If he changes his vote here, he may well be challenged, asked to explain.

He squints again at a tally board. The light beside his name appears to be the only one not illuminated. It appears they do need his vote.

The majority whip appears at his desk. “Push the yes button, goddammit!” he growls.

A moment’s more hesitation. Howard looks up, looks around the room. A lot of eyes are on him.

“Can you make that a suggestion instead of an order?”

-End-

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