On April 3, former congressmen, Steven Kuykendall (R-CA), and Charles Melancon (D-LA), met each other for the first time to speak on their political experiences as part of the Congress to Campus program at St. Bonaventure University.
Congress to Campus partners with universities across the country to bring former bipartisan congressmen to speak to students and faculty. This is St. Bonaventure’s second year participating in the program.
Bart Lambert, associate professor of political science, said that last year, Jim Walsh (R-NY), ’70 and former congressman of New York’s 24th congressional district, contacted the university and said he would like to visit through the Congress to Campus program, held April 3 and 4 this year.
“Jim Walsh and Richard Stallings [D-ID], were here last spring,” said Lambert. “It was a successful program. This past fall, we decided we wanted to do it again because of its success, and we knew what to expect this time around.”
As part of their time spent at St. Bonaventure, Kuykendall and Melancon spoke to different classes about government and how it relates to specific topics. This included journalist’s workshop, an upper-level journalism course in which students staff an online news site, TapInto Greater Olean.
The pair spoke about the role of media in government and politics during their time as members of the House of Representatives and in today’s government.
Kuykendall served California in the House of Representatives, representing its 36th congressional district from 1999 to 2001. He served in the Armed Forces in Vietnam, and on the science, and the transportation and infrastructure Committees of the House.
He started his career in public service by representing a small community of about 45,000 people, Rancho Palos Verdes, California.
“There was tight coverage of local papers,” said Kuykendall. “There were two daily papers and a weekly paper. I got to learn these really well. This was my first time dealing with press.”
Kuykendall didn’t realize the importance of the media until he was running for a position recognized at a national level.
“I certainly never studied journalism,” said Kuykendall. “What I learned was if you’re going to represent half a million people and thousands of registered voters, journalism is the only media we have that won’t cost money and will help with the communication length.”
Despite his respect for journalists, he believes that some reporters who interviewed and wrote stories on him in the past didn’t exactly know much about politics.
“I once had a young reporter write a story on me, but she did not have a lot of background on the subject,” said Kuykendall. “I had the Washington staff and district staff trying to get her to understand how social security worked. It took about three or four days.”
Melancon also experienced similar situations during his time in public office.
“When I ran for congress, I went from the guy who was recognized locally, to a person running for a political position on a national level,” said Melancon. “In Washington, people are dogging and looking for stories. At home, we could give the press our side of the story.”
Melancon served in the House of Representatives, representing Louisiana’s 3rd congressional district from 2005 to 2011.
He said after becoming a national figure, your personal life is no longer your own.
“You have to be attentive no matter where you go,” said Melancon.
He said that sometimes, people believe news just because it is out there.
“People have the tendency to read those sources that affirm their beliefs,” said Melancon. “Just because it’s the internet they believe it’s true. The legitimate press, to me, writes an article that is fair and balanced and gets the first-hand story.”
Kuykendall added to Melancon’s statements, saying that some reporters tend to include too much bias in their stories.
“They should allow the public to decide on what they think,” Kuykendall said.
The congressmen also spoke in business law and political science classes and a congress course, model Senate, run by Lambert, in which Kuykendall and Melancon played witnesses.
Both said they enjoyed the different topics they had the opportunity to speak about during their time here.
On Monday, Kuykendall and Melancon led a community forum in the Rigas Theater of the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts titled, “What Explains the Discord in Washington and What Can Be Done to Restore Bipartisan Cooperation?” Here, they spoke about the growing conflict in D.C. and how to improve conflict, said Kuykendall.
They also presented at the Tuesday Forum April 4 in the University Club. The forum, titled, “How Should States and Communities Respond to Cutbacks in Federal Environmental Protection?,” focused on federal cutbacks and environmental protection.
Kuykendall highlighted the discussion on cybersecurity and international security at the forum.
“I really enjoyed it,” said Kuykendall. “That was something I worked with when I was in Congress. There were a lot of questions I have been asked by the community many times and is a topic I enjoyed speaking about.”
Kuykendall, Melancon and Lambert hope the Congress to Campus program sheds light on careers in public service and encourages more students and faculty to get involved.
“We hope it sparks interest in students and professors to see how people work in public service,” said Kuykendall.
“The purpose of this program is to raise awareness of Congress and how it works,” Lambert added. “We hope people got a better sense of how it works and how they can relate. We also want to encourage more discussion by bringing in one Democrat and one Republican. We hope this demonstrates how is it is possible to have a civil discussion on controversial issues.”
To learn more about the Congress to Campus program, visit http://usafmc.org/us-programs/congress-to-campus/.