Last week, newly elected state representatives traveled from every corner of Missouri to the Capitol for Freshman Orientation. As an incoming member of the House, I made the tough decision to attend — risking COVID-19 exposure for the opportunity to meet my new colleagues and learn as much as I can about this job.
And learn I did. Those of us who attended in-person or virtually all got a glimpse into the day-to-day experiences and challenges that lie ahead of us as lawmakers. We had mock legislative sessions, budget training, and an opportunity to meet so many of the brilliant House and Capitol staff who make our jobs possible. Each of our state’s public servants has such deep institutional knowledge and an unyielding dedication to our democracy, and I’m looking forward to learning as much as possible from each of them.
After last week, I can personally attest that I have a much clearer understanding of how to be an effective legislator. In addition to this invaluable education, I had a chance to meet so many of the new representatives I’ll be working with for the next several years.
But this is 2020, and like so many other things in our lives, face-to-face human interaction has become as disappointing as it is dangerous.
CDC guidelines about mask-wearing are explicitly clear: “People age 2 and older should wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in their household.” Unfortunately, the far-right’s crusade to politicize mask-wearing in the midst of a pandemic has made gathering in mixed company objectively unsafe for all involved.
Last week, Missouri saw a daily average of roughly 5,000 new COVID-19 cases. I’m glad the decision was made to postpone the two-week Freshman Bus Tour that was slated to take place after Thanksgiving, but many of my Democratic colleagues and I remained concerned about spending three days in close proximity with folks who are taking this pandemic much less seriously than us.
When we arrived on Wednesday, our fears were confirmed: The majority of our freshman class was unmasked, and the partisan divide was stark. As we took our seats in the House Chamber, I noticed that every Democrat wore a mask — but only four Republicans did.
I’m grateful Republican leadership made the commendable decision to model mask wearing for their caucus, and eventually a few more GOP freshmen joined the masked ranks. But the unmasked sent a clear message to those of us taking precautions: “Your health and safety are of no concern to me.” Instead of enthusiastically introducing ourselves to everyone on the other side of the aisle, many of us Democrats held back in an effort to keep a safe distance.
This is not to say we avoided one another completely. Introductions were made, laughs were shared, and connections — while strained — were possible. But I have concerns about how this dynamic could affect our ability to work across the aisle. Missourians deserve better than a hyper-partisan, deeply divided government. They deserve a cohesive, well-intentioned legislative body committed to putting differences aside to deliver for our constituents.
Despite my reservations, I’m genuinely excited to roll up my sleeves and get to work for my district. We learned so much last week, and many of us were able to look past partisanship and connect on some of the big issues facing our communities. Missouri is counting on all of us, and I, for one, have never been more ready to hit the ground running. Let’s mask up and get to work.
Ashley Aune is an incoming Democratic state representative who was recently elected to the HD 14 seat.