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Virginia House Race: Spoiled Voters, Evasive Pols

"What is wrong with Congress that you can't police yourselves?" asked Genie Hopkins. "What is wrong with you people that you do business like this? Why can't you work together?"

I'd like to report that when Hopkins took time out of her day to travel from her home in Purcellville to a meeting hall in Leesburg to confront her congressman, Frank Wolf, with those heartfelt questions, the crowd cheered her on. And I'd love to tell you that Wolf embraced the truth behind Hopkins's plaint, leveled with his constituents about the problems we face and spelled out tough solutions involving painful public sacrifice.

But that's not what happened when Wolf -- a Republican who represents parts of Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Fauquier and three more Northern Virginia counties -- appeared this week at a forum sponsored by the AARP.

For starters, the congressman told Hopkins to take her question to the Democratic leader of the Senate, Harry Reid. "You'll have to ask the leadership, ma'am," he said. "I have a record of honesty and integrity."

I caught up to Hopkins later. "He was evasive," she said of Wolf's response. "I just wanted to know why the institution is so paralyzed, why they're so damn partisan. That's what makes politics so distasteful. All I wanted to hear was if he agreed and why it is that way."

But that sad misfire between congressman and constituent was not the most disturbing part of that afternoon in Leesburg. No, what was more depressing was that there were only nine people in attendance when Hopkins pleaded with Wolf for a no-bull response.

"Well, why should they come?" asked Esther Trask, president of the Loudoun AARP and organizer of the forum. She had the room set up for 350 but was embarrassed to present Wolf and his challenger, Democrat Judy Feder, with a sea of empty chairs. "People are really just disgusted. They don't feel anyone's listening to them. Politicians don't see us as their employer anymore, and we don't make them talk about the real issues. Why should people come? They're spoiled. They think everything's going to be taken care of for them, and they don't bother holding the politicians accountable."

Honestly, if they had come, those spoiled voters -- many of whom whine about how they're not as informed as they'd like to be -- wouldn't have learned much. They'd have heard the same tired talking points that dominate cable news and the presidential race. Even this far from the glare of TV lights, House candidates tend to spew political consultants' poisonous blend of packaged slogans and gotcha attack lines.

Which is too bad, because this is a race involving two candidates who know better. Wolf is not just a self-proclaimed "pothole politician" who can talk like a county supervisor about local road projects and development issues. He's also an idealist who has used his position to fight for human rights in oppressive nations around the globe. And Feder is a former Georgetown University dean who taught public policy and is unusually well versed for someone who has never been in office.

But put them on a stage, even in front of nine people, and they're immediately reduced to the usual blather about low taxes and fighting for the middle class and wholly undefined change.

Curiously, just an hour before taking that stage, Wolf had sat down with me on a bench outside Leesburg Town Hall and opened up about exactly Genie Hopkins's concern: "I do see a more partisan, meaner environment," he said, looking back over 14 terms in office. "Congress is dysfunctional, and part of it is that the members don't live here anymore. They come to town on Monday and leave Thursday. Very few have families here anymore. The members often don't know each other. It's all red or blue."

Wolf told me about his friendship with Tony Hall, a Democrat from Ohio who served in the House for two decades, until 2002. "You very seldom see that kind of close friendship across the aisle anymore," Wolf said. "You're almost looked down upon for having those relationships now."

Wolf blames the deep partisan divide in part on the sped-up news cycle, the transformation of politics into a TV sport. "Will [CNN anchorman] Wolf Blitzer carry an inflammatory comment, or will he report that two congressmen sat down to discuss world hunger?" he said. "The system now rewards the more controversial, the more inflammatory."

But a politician allows himself to go only so far.

Did the Bush presidency drive the two sides ever further apart? "History will tell us," Wolf said. "I don't go after people."

How can we cut through this dysfunctional freeze? "All I can do is be who I am," Wolf said. "I've always done what I believe is right."

Obviously frustrated by the nation's economic woes, Wolf made a passing reference to this being "a teachable moment."

What does that mean? He talked about the need, even in tough times, to invest much more in math, science and engineering, to build American know-how and innovation.

Are you saying that our priorities have been wrong, that there was something dishonest about politics that encouraged unrealistically low taxes, anti-intellectualism and spending beyond our means?

Wolf stood up. "It's getting cold out here," he said, and so it was. We walked to our cars.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  October 23, 2008; 9:16 AM ET
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