A Tragedy Hits Home

 

You don’t need to know someone for their tragic death to hit home. Anything associated with the tragedy – the location, their jobs, or even the sudden, inexplicable loss of innocent life – can trigger the equivalent of a gut punch.

That happened to me yesterday upon learning of the death of US Rep. Jackie Walorski, the five-term Republican US Representative from Indiana’s Second Congressional District. Two of her young aides – her district director, Zachery Potts, 27, and communications director (press secretary) Emma Thomson, 28 – perished while traveling via car north on a two-lane Indiana state road (19) when the vehicle she was riding crossed the southbound lane, killing another driver. Horrific.

It struck home because I used to work for one of her predecessors from that very northern Indiana district, former US Rep. John Hiler (R-IN). I was his then-23-year-old communications director. And many times over a nearly three-year career in his office, we drove all hours of the day, frequently before dawn, between Goshen, Elkhart, LaPorte, and scores of small towns along the way. Often, I was behind the wheel on one of Indiana’s flat, largely straight two-lane roads that link rural communities. Including the towns of Wakarusa and Nappanee.

We didn’t want the Congressman to drive himself, even in his district. It would allow him to catch up on his reading (we didn’t have cell phones back then) and avoid speeding tickets or other distractions between engagements. It’s a common practice in congressional offices, especially today.

I remember meeting the Congresswoman during a lobbying visit in Washington shortly after she was first elected in 2013. It was a chance encounter at a Washington, DC reception. She was warm, gracious, and energetic. She beamed as I shared my story of once working for Congressman Hiler and my connection to her district.

I probably brought up Dyngus Day, as I often do when encountering someone from South Bend. Dyngus Day is a Polish Catholic holiday to signify the end of Lent, the Monday immediately following Easter Sunday. Also a major ethnic and political holiday in South Bend, it features Falcon Clubs hosting polka, endless kielbasa, hard-boiled eggs, and beer. The festivities begin early in the morning. Politicians throughout the “Michiana” region flock to the city and customarily visit every club. It was expected of local officials, Democratic or Republican (and there were very few of the latter). And I’m sure Walorski loved it.

Seeing her last name, I suspected Walorski was from South Bend’s largely Polish west side. Once a manufacturing hub and the former headquarters of Studebaker vehicles, the city attracted many immigrant families from Poland, Italy, and other European countries. Notre Dame University’s prominence grew as manufacturing ebbed in the region and factories, including those that made the Studebaker, began to close in the 1960s. An effort to keep the former Studebaker’s Avanti sports car production continued until bankruptcy in 1985.

Studebaker’s Avanti, 1964

Walorski fit her district like a glove. Aside from a shared ethnic heritage, she focused on local issues, including the manufacture of recreational vehicles, which predominate in neighboring Elkhart County. While a conservative Republican, she worked long and hard, was accessible to everyone, and built strong relations with local officials, including South Bend’s former Democratic mayor and now Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, who, like many others, mourned her passage. Everybody liked and respected her. And felt the same way about them.

Her personal history is worth noting. She was a leader in the Indiana House of Representatives before her election to Congress. “Jackie and her husband Dean previously spent four years as missionaries in Romania, where they started and ran a foundation to provide food and medical supplies to impoverished children there, reads her official biography. “Jackie also worked as a television news reporter in South Bend and as a development director for colleges and universities in Indiana.”

The congressional seat she represented, which used to be Third District, was marginal until redistricting stretched the seat south to include several GOP-voting counties. When tragedy struck, her district had just regained the heavily GOP territory through which she was traveling in southern Elkhart County.

House Democratic Majority Whip John Brademas held it for 22 years until the then-27-year-old Hiler dethroned him in the 1980 Reagan landslide. Hiler successfully fought through 4 tough reelections before finally succumbing to Democrat and former Brademas staffer Tim Roemer in 1990, who retired after 12 years. Republican Chris Chocola held the seat briefly, only to lose to Democrat Joe Donnelly in the Democratic landslide of 2006. When Donnelly won a US Senate seat in 2012, Walorski succeeded him.

She turned the now-Second District into a safe GOP seat, which was almost unimaginable 20 years ago. She was considered a shoo-in for reelection this November.

Congress as an institution, of course, is deeply unpopular, rating just below television news, big business, and newspapers. It is not hard to figure out why. But when tragedies occur, it is helpful, even important, to remember what we demand of our elected officials and the risks they take to serve. They sacrifice more than you may realize, from time away from family to unsuspecting visits to grocery stores and even automobile trips on rural roads. Anything can happen, including tragedies.

So when the Federal Election Commission recently voted to allow Members of Congress to use campaign funds to pay for child care while on campaign travel, I didn’t complain. As Congress considers spending tax dollars to beef up the home security of Representatives who often receive death threats, I don’t complain. Complain about their $174,000 annual salary all you wish, the size of their staff, or even their foreign travel. I know how hard they work, how many emails, letters, and phone calls they respond to (thousands every week), and the incessant demands on their time and schedules from people like you and me. I worked on the staff of three US House members and have traveled with dozens more in political campaigns.

You may not like their votes, tweets, pronouncements, media interviews, or never-ending fundraising appeals. That’s all fair game and goes with the territory. You’ll find plenty of criticism of Congressmen and Senators in my prior blog posts. But they take risks whenever they jump on a plane almost every week or in a car and show up at ribbon cuttings or factory visits to understand the impact of government policies on their constituents.

For that, we owe them civility and respect. And today, we owe the families of Rep. Walorski, her departed staff, and the other victim, Edith Schmucker, our respect, thoughts, prayers, and compassion.

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There are 7 comments.

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  1. Victor Tango Kilo Member
    Victor Tango Kilo
    @VtheK

    On the general topic of tragedies hitting close to home, uou remember last weekend, when a drunk driver plowed into a group of bicyclists riding for the Make-a-Wish charity? That happened less than a mile from the house where I grew up.

    Note that the Washington Post couldn’t resist noting that Walorski was one of those dirty Republicans with skepticism about election integrity when they noted her passing.

    • #1
  2. Bishop Wash Member
    Bishop Wash
    @BishopWash

    Victor Tango Kilo (View Comment):
    Note that the Washington Post couldn’t resist noting that Walorski was one of those dirty Republicans with skepticism about election integrity when they noted her passing.

    I didn’t know the party affiliation when the announcement was made. People kept saying that she was involved in the election coup, so I assumed she was a Democrat and involved with the Russian Collusion Hoax or the successful coup of 2020.

    • #2
  3. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    What a loss.  I confess that I had not heard of her, so I greatly appreciate your warm gazette of her station and situation, and the description of the environment.

    • #3
  4. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    I’m sorry I didn’t know about her until now. Her congressional district is not a next-door neighbor to mine in Michigan, but there is only one district between us.  Thank you for the tribute.

    I’ve done a lot of bicycle riding in that country.  I’ve done many rides to Goshen, Nappanee, and La Porte and a smaller number to Wakarusa, Elkhart, and South Bend.  The area has some of my favorite places, but the map database of such rides as I have recorded shows that I’ve never gotten closer than one mile from the intersection close to where that crash took place.  That makes it hit close to home, too.  

    • #4
  5. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    The Chicago Tribune printed nothing in this morning’s paper.  I actually looked through every page of the pamphlet looking for it.  Such a shame, like a thief in the night.

    • #5
  6. Kelly D Johnston Coolidge
    Kelly D Johnston
    @SoupGuy

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I’m sorry I didn’t know about her until now. Her congressional district is not a next-door neighbor to mine in Michigan, but there is only one district between us. Thank you for the tribute.

    I’ve done a lot of bicycle riding in that country. I’ve done many rides to Goshen, Nappanee, and La Porte and a smaller number to Wakarusa, Elkhart, and South Bend. The area has some of my favorite places, but the map database of such rides as I have recorded shows that I’ve never gotten closer than one mile from the intersection close to where that crash took place. That makes it hit close to home, too.

    It is beautiful country filled with salt-of-the-earth people, as is southwestern Michigan. Thanks for your note.

    • #6
  7. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O
    @ChrisO

    Kelly D Johnston (View Comment):

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    I’m sorry I didn’t know about her until now. Her congressional district is not a next-door neighbor to mine in Michigan, but there is only one district between us. Thank you for the tribute.

    I’ve done a lot of bicycle riding in that country. I’ve done many rides to Goshen, Nappanee, and La Porte and a smaller number to Wakarusa, Elkhart, and South Bend. The area has some of my favorite places, but the map database of such rides as I have recorded shows that I’ve never gotten closer than one mile from the intersection close to where that crash took place. That makes it hit close to home, too.

    It is beautiful country filled with salt-of-the-earth people, as is southwestern Michigan. Thanks for your note.

    I’ll echo that. I worked for that area at the state legislature. Tough, lovely people.

    Thank you for this piece, Kelly, and thank you, Ms. Walorski for your service.

    • #7
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