Walk, jog or drive around Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park these days, and chances are you’ll come across a casually serious meeting of folks in camping chairs in the park’s northwest corner. Look for the pink water bottle.
That’s where Rep. Filemon Vela, adapting on the fly to the way the coronavirus pandemic has altered our work life rhythms, has been setting up shop instead of his usual Cannon House Office Building digs. He will also watch your stuff for you. “I guard her pink water bottle,” he said, gesturing to the gnarls of a tree’s roots. It turns out the random jogger who left it there works as a Senate staffer. “So you get to meet people,” he said. Such is park life.
Cooped up but wanting to keep his staff, colleagues and family safe, the Texas Democrat opted for the open air of the park the last few months, a short walk from his residence in D.C. And while the pandemic is never far from his mind, or anyone’s for that matter, that doesn’t mean there aren’t moments of grace to savor.
“I was here a lot yesterday and watching so many people enjoy the park, it gives you a sense of happiness almost, right?” he said on Monday morning, coffee in hand from the nearby Wine and Butter bistro. “Because you realize everyone right now is in kind of the same boat, and you’ve seen it when everyone’s out here. It kind of makes you feel good that other people are having fun and interacting with each other in a safe way.”
First elected in 2012, Vela represents the Lone Star State’s 34th District, a sprawling expanse of land along the Mexican border. It includes Brownsville and the King Ranch, which at 825,000 acres is bigger than Rhode Island and is such an icon that Ford named one of its premium pickup trucks after it. Its wide-open spaces are a far cry from D.C.’s more cramped confines. But being out in the park, sometimes up to nine hours a day, has quite literally changed Vela’s perception.
“You make observations about nature you normally don’t ever pay attention to … Simple things like positioning of the sun and where you sit. These trees. The shade. Things you thought of as a kid. And just watching people,” he said.
Vela spent the first three months of the pandemic in his district, being extra cautious to keep his wife, Rose, who has had two heart surgeries, safe. Aside from the usual videoconferencing we have all adjusted to, he was able to meet with people in person in his backyard, which is spacious. “I was bringing people back to my patio, because I can keep this sort of distance back there,” he said. One thing he had to deal with, though, as it got to be summer: “It was also really, really hot.”
With that in mind, wanting to be present in Washington when there were floor votes and wanting to avoid flying back and forth, he and Rose decided to come back for the July session and then just stay put until the pre-election recess. After returning, it didn’t take long for him to get the idea to meet with people in Lincoln Park.
“Historically, the park has been the place where we take the dogs for walks, but the park has taken on a lot more meaning over the last couple of months. It’s convenient because it’s right there and I got tired of staring at the walls, so I decided to spend time out here,” he said.
Staying such a long stretch in Washington harks back to times when members used to spend months at a time in the capital city, and then head home for long breaks.
“I spent seven years and two months, except for maybe a month out of the year, pretty much going back and forth every week. I’d often wondered, would it not be more productive if you spent a block of time back home and a block of time up here,” Vela mused.
As nice as the outdoors is, he misses life in the Capitol itself, mingling with people. Humans are social animals, and politicians are very social animals.
“It’s still different, right? Pretty much everyone’s life has been stripped away. The fact that we can’t go on the Hill and spend time with our staff and other members and running into people in the hall and people coming in and out. It’s pretty traumatizing, at the end of the day.”
Still, “I’ve had a lot of fun out here,” he said.
Asked whether he might replicate the Lincoln Park experience for office hours back in his district, Vela said he will likely continue outdoor meetings, but there is plenty of space in people’s yards.
“When we do go back in the fall, it’s when the weather is perfect over there. So I hadn’t thought whether I’d replicate it. South Texas is more spacious. … More likely we’ll replicate it, but at people’s homes,” he said.
And what about Washington, when the current fall weather gets colder and darker, just in time for the post-election lame duck session?
“Right now, my plan is to exercise my right of proxy in the winter,” Vela said, if pandemic protocols are still in place. “I’ve spent the last two and a half months voting in person, watching others go by proxy. The winter will be my turn.”