Congressman Peter DeFazio talks democracy, term limits, youth activism in Solomont Speaker Series event

Congressman Peter DeFazio is pictured in 2008. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Congressman and Tufts alumnus Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, spoke about his work as the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and his time in Congress with Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science Deborah Schildkraut as part of the Tisch College Solomont Speaker Series. DeFazio (A’69) has represented Oregon’s 4th Congressional District for 36 years and plans to retire at the end of his current term. Although originally scheduled to speak at Tufts in person, DeFazio joined the event via Zoom from his office because he recently tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

After dropping an intended math major because one of the required classes met on Saturday morning, DeFazio studied political science and economics during his time at Tufts. In an interview with the Daily prior to the event, he described how his time at Tufts, especially the activist culture during the Vietnam War, played a critical role in shaping his understanding of public service. He added that his athletic pursuits at Tufts helped to prepare him for a career as a politician.

“I was a wrestler at Tufts,” DeFazio said. “It’s a one-on-one sport. You’re out there on the mat, and if you screw up, you screwed up. … It really prepared me in a lot of ways for politics; … A lot of stuff is debate, one-on-one. I didn’t take any debating courses, but I think wrestling kind of set me up for that, and I guess I had a natural talent.”

Considering the current, highly polarized state of American politics, DeFazio said youth activism is essential to meeting the political demands of our time.

“The key, to me, is youth activism,” DeFazio said. “You can’t just get overwhelmed by [politics], and if you can pick out targets that are achievable, get a couple of those down and then start showing a little success, it could multiply.”

After an introduction from Tisch College Dean Dayna Cunningham, Schildkraut and DeFazio had a wide-ranging discussion about civic engagement, congressional reform and the future of democracy.

Schildkraut asked DeFazio what advice he would give students who are civically engaged but may feel unsafe taking a public stance on a controversial issue.

“If you’re worried about the things that get thrown at you on social media, you’ve just got to …  develop thicker skin,” DeFazio said.

He emphasized again that youth activism is critical to bringing about change.

“If you have a real strong cause and you get together with other people, … they’re gonna be there to support you,” he added.

Schildkraut also asked DeFazio whether he thought term limits would be a beneficial or harmful reform to Congress. DeFazio responded that 36 years in Congress have provided him with the valuable knowledge of how to operate within dysfunctional bureaucracies and be the best public servant possible.

“Term limits would totally empower the permanent government … and then replace good civil servants with [political action committees], and who’s going to know?” DeFazio said. “Term limits are every two years in the House of Representatives. You have to run for re-election. If you [do] a bad job, … you’re out.”

Instead of term limits, he called to reform the influence of PAC and corporate money in politics. He cited the Citizens United Supreme Court case, which reduced campaign finance restrictions, as being an incredibly destructive ruling.

Schildkraut asked DeFazio what actionable advice he would give people who want to help heal our democracy.

“Be kind to somebody every day,” DeFazio said. “Just make a difference. … Stay involved. Be engaged with your family, your community, your friends, your colleagues. There’s power in that.”

Although he acknowledged there are people whose minds are unchangeable, he said that it is important not to “paint” one’s opponents, particularly Trump supporters, as being all the same.

“Some of them are just desperate,” DeFazio said. “They’re concerned about their livelihood, their home, their kids, their family, their future. I always refer to politics as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. You’ve got to address these things [at the bottom], which are very basic to humanity.”

Speaking with the Daily, DeFazio reflected on his time in Congress and what he will miss most about serving in public office.

“I’m never bored. [I’m] constantly stimulated,” he said. “It’s almost like being in a perpetual graduate course. … You’re always learning about things, and I try [to] work on diverse subjects,” DeFazio said. “So you know, I’ll miss some of that stimulation. I’m going to find other ways to do it.”