Here’s a little tale that calls to mind a bit of ancient wisdom. It involves Donna Jefferson of Union Hall, a recent communication with her congressman, U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, and the Dialogues of Plato, which date to around 370 B.C.
It also entails Riggleman’s apparent response. That qualification is necessary, because, as Phaedrus once related to Socrates, “things are not always what they seem.”
This mini-saga began June 23. That’s when Jefferson was moved to write her congressman about a hot topic: the Trump administration’s internment of migrant children near the southern border, under conditions certain critics have likened to concentration camps.
Jefferson visited Riggleman’s congressional website and clicked on his contact page. Like all members of Congress, he has an online form constituents may use to inform their representatives. On that, here’s what Jefferson wrote:
“It is now widely reported that children detained at our Southern border are being treated in harsh ways — separated from their parents, denied basic needs, living in overcrowded conditions, rampant illness, unsanitary conditions, and more. This is inhumane and counter to the principles of this country.
“Congress controls the budget of our immigration agencies and has the responsibility of oversight. It cannot be said that Congress is powerless to put an end to this. As a member of your constituency, I demand that you call for an immediate and total end to this shameful treatment. I demand that you immediately commit your time and energy as my representative to end this.
“I have worked [as a volunteer] at Glade Hill Elementary School for several years and the children I see portrayed standing behind chained link fencing are the children I work with every day. Those children are the same as my children, my neighbor’s children, and your children.
“There is no excuse — NONE — for children to be so treated in the United States of America, the land I love. These facilities are being paid handsomely to house these children and the fact that they are sleeping on concrete, without access to proper hygiene, blows my simple little mind.
“Do not email me a response explaining away this atrocity. I want this to stop and for these children to treated as human beings. I will accept nothing less.”
And then Jefferson pressed the “send” button.
One day later, on June 24, she found a message from Riggleman in her email account’s inbox. Addressed “Dear Ms. Jefferson,” here’s the guts of it.
“Thank you for contacting me about the importance of natural resource conservation. It is an honor to represent the people of Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District, and I appreciate the opportunity to learn your thoughts on this issue.
“As a native Virginian and avid outdoorsman, I believe that conservation of the Commonwealth’s natural resources and preservation of outdoor recreational areas is vital to the wellbeing of the of the 5th District.
“I have supported legislation such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, co-sponsored the Chesapeake Bay Program Reauthorization Act, and co-sponsored the Preserving America’s Battlefields Act. Each of these bills protects different aspects of Virginia’s vast natural resource systems and ensures Virginians’ rights to enjoy these beautiful lands.”
There was more, but you get the drift. Not a syllable of Riggleman’s message had anything to do with migrant children, the camps, the southern border or humanitarian atrocities. And that blew Jefferson’s mind even more.
She wrote me: “This is the first correspondence I’ve had with my congressman since his election in 2018.” Waggishly, she added: “Perhaps his staff is too busy editing his next Bigfoot publication to adequately read his constituent’s letters.”
How could a letter about the mistreatment of migrant children elicit a response about natural resources and conservation?
That was my chief question to Joe Chelak, Riggleman’s spokesman. He agreed to look into it. It didn’t take long for him to figure out what had happened.
While Jefferson’s June 23 missive was the first one she had personally authored to Riggleman, it was not her first communication to him. Turns out she had sent the congressman a June 20 email regarding funding for restoration of the Everglades.
That appeared to be a form email, Chelak noted. Most likely, Jefferson sent it by choosing her congressional district on an interest group’s website and clicking on a button — that’s something that’s easy to forget. Chelak showed me a copy of the June 20 communication.
It just so happened that Riggleman’s office responded to that email one day after Jefferson sent the one about the treatment of migrant children.
Jefferson sheepishly acknowledged as much when I called her. She’d forgotten about clicking on the button on the interest group’s website a few days earlier.
“I’m so sorry I wasted your time,” she told me.
Chelak also answered some general questions I had about the congressional email game.
Since Riggleman’s swearing-in last January, the office has received more than 30,000 letters and emails — that’s more than 1,000 per week.
“All constituent letters are read and our office policy is to send a response within a two-week window,” Chelak said. “We have a legislative team that deals with all constituent correspondence and works with the congressman on crafting responses and ensuring constituent concerns are heard.”
Riggleman, Chelak added, reads “as many as he can — the congressman is very involved in the constituent correspondence effort.”
A response to Jefferson’s email about migrant children was in the works when Chelak and I spoke. Perhaps she’s received it by now.
So there’s the story. Once again, Plato is right. Things are not always what they seem.