Norma Cartwright is a candidate in Tennessee's 4th District Democratic Congressional primary. The former nurse, clerical worker, and truck driver wants to replace Lincoln Davis, the incumbent conservative Democrat. She doesn't expect to win the primary her first time around, but - like any good trucker - she's in it for the long haul.
"Do I think I know this country?" she responds to a question. "I've delivered marine batteries to Key West in March, carried props and special effects to Estes Park, CO for The Shining, and picked up fancy clothing in New York's Garment District. I've been in all 48 states and Canada. I've seen the Statue of Liberty from three sides, and I've learned that New Jersey has the best diners in America."
Norma Cartwright's taking on a tough challenge. Rep. Lincoln Davis is well-funded and popular. So why bother? "There's not enough talking with in Washington," she answers. "Too much talking at. It's had me disturbed for several years. The occupation of Iraq, the dismantling of programs that have served us well for decades, the inequity in taxation, job loss, the relentless division of America into the rich and the poor, the white from the black from the brown, old against young, left-coast vs right-coast vs heartland. Republicans against Democrats, conservative or liberal."
When asked about her background she answers: "Varied. You know about the driving - 'if you bought it, a truck brought it,' as we say - but I was a nurse in the Labor and Delivery department, and I've worked clerical jobs in a coal mine, in land reclamation, and in insurance claims. Then I went to work at a nonprofit public policy foundation, where we hosted political forums. I met a lot of leaders there. From there I became a welfare case worker - and let me tell you, it's a lot harder for people to get off welfare than it is to get on it. That's a program in need of serious repair."
Where does truckdriving come in?
"My husband became a truck driver, and he was on the road more than 300 days a year. So I decided to become one, too. Ever go to sleep in Barstow and wake up in Albuquerque? I have, many times."
What made you decided to make the enormous commitment a campaign represents?
"It all came to a head when the president and FEMA let people die in New Orleans. That's when I said, 'If nobody else is going to do it...' I think it's going to take a different kind of politician. I didn't see anybody else in my district stepping up, so I figured I'd have to be that person."
She adamantly refuses to question her opponent's character (unlike a certain New England Senator who's also running in a primary). "I don't know of anything in his background that's negative," she says firmly, "and I don't want to know."
But what about his voting record? "Deplorable," she says. "He voted for some of the most damaging legislation ever proposed: the bankruptcy bill that was written by the credit-card lobby, the Tort Limitation bill written by the insurance lobby, Medicare Part D written by the pharmaceutical lobby, and the PATRIOT ACT II renewal. The Drum Major Institute gives him a 'F.'"
"He's especially out of touch with the needs of the folks in our district," she adds." The Drum Major Institute gives him a low score on important middle class issues like the Class Action Fairness Act. Congress.org, which grades legislator's effectiveness, ranks him at 403rd out of 435. You can't get much less powerful than that! And if you look at this voting record, you'll wonder if he's really a Democrat."
Asked what kind of representative she would be, she answers quickly: "I'll tell you what I wouldn't be. I wouldn't be royalty. Members of Congress are used to being pampered and spoiled. I'm proud to be the daugher of a blue-collar union man. Congress is supposed to be the 'people's assembly,' the way that Jefferson envisioned it."
She laughs. "And I know about royalty," she says. I was fired from a waitressing job at the Cracker Barrel because Catherine Bach - she's the original 'Daisy' on 'Dukes of Hazzard' - thought I didn't give her and her entourage enough special treatment. And I always gave my customers good service."
"In terms of my values," she says," I want change and common sense. To have a clean government again, to rebuild confidence in our country, and to reclaim our place in the world. To hold elections that are fair, legitimate and available to all. "
Sounds like your work life affects your view of career politicians. Do you interact with people when you're driving?
"Children see me driving a big truck and make a ruckus in the car. In rest areas, senior citizens like to talk with me. Teenagers either salute or flip me the bird (I don't know why!) I used to drive with my husband, but since he went to work for another company I've gone solo. I've been responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of freight and delivered it without significant problems. In 16 years I haven't even gotten a ticket, and that's driving 120,000 miles a year."
Do- you like it?
"I've never regretted it. If you've never done it and it hasn't gotten into your blood, you wouldn't understand. I love the freedom of planning my own schedule - no supervisor breathing down my neck. Not confined to a desk. I know the length of Route I40 from Knoxville to California as well as I my know my own street."
Why do you think you'll be a better representative for the people of your district?
"Congress is top-heavy with lawyers. Lots of people think you need be one to run for office. That's so wrong! Anybody can run and I want people to see that. Jefferson's vision for the House was partly modeled on the English House of Commons. It was supposed to reflect the make-up of the population. Now both houses of Congress have become the House of Lords!"
What about the campaign process itself?
"I can't speak about Mr Davis specifically, but take a look at the campaign contributions so many the members of Congress get. That'll give you a rich lesson in how our campaign finance system has degraded into a pay-to-play scandal. If we had federal financing for elections, a politician wouldn't need to constantly raise money and please his donors. After all, the donors didn't vote him/her into Congress; logic says the voters should come first. Going home wouldn't mean 'making the rounds' to pick up checks from donors and attend fundraisers,. I have positive points to be make, but it's hard to raise enough money to run against a powerhouse incumbent, especially if there are contributions I won't take. "
"But I can't bend on that point just to win," she adds. "How can I set myself apart from the corrupting influence of corporate money if I accept it?"
What if you don't win?
"If I don't win this election, I'll add it to my learning curve and run again in 2008. In order to curtail the president's self-perceived powers that are clearly illegal, the Democrats need to regain the majority in November. If it doesn't happen this time, we'll have that much more to fix in 2008. But we'll have even more fed-up voters, too. Although there's always the ever-popular Republican October Surprise."
"I'll campaign for Mr. Davis too," she adds. "I'd hate to have his seat go to a Republican."
Will you take a break after that? Do something fun, maybe?
"I can't think of anything recreational I've done lately," she answers, "without having politics on my mind. We did go to the 'RC Cola And Moon Pie Festival' the same weekend the Bonaroo rock concert was snarling traffic around here. But I've bought a lot of political books lately. Now I'm reading David Sirota's book, and I really believe Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair are doing the best investigative journalism of the last thirty years."
"I miss dancing," she adds. "I think I'd like to join a dance club. But there's so much to do ..."
A Night Light