Posted: March 10, 2011
CHAT AND CHOO CHOO
By Celia Cohen
There is something about Delawareans that makes them want to know if their congressional delegation is commuting to Washington and if their governor is actually living in Woodburn, the executive quarters in Dover.
For all the interest, the answer does not seem to matter much in the way of political ramifications. Bill Roth, the Republican senator, kept a place in D.C. while he won five terms, and only the governors already from Kent County seem to make Woodburn their main home, the way Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat from Milford, did. Never mind.
Much more than the association of Woodburn with the governor, however, Amtrak seems embedded in the identity of the congressional contingent, the same way it is known as one of those quirky reverse delegations with more Senate to it than House of Representatives.
Joe Biden is probably the reason, because of his determination to get home to his motherless sons. A state remembers something like that.
These days the delegation is all-commuter, the better to display to the voters how grounded in Delaware it is -- which is the point, after all. If four hours a day on a train does not come across as an inoculation against Potomac fever, then there must not be one.
Nor does it stop with that. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, the Democratic senators, and John Carney, the Democratic congressman, are not only riding the trains, but legislating for them. They are newly trying to have billions in high-speed rail money, which was turned down by Florida, redirected to the Northeast.
Coons has come up with something else to cement his commuter credentials.
He calls it "Correspondence from the Commute." Once a month he takes his laptop into the cafe car, records himself answering constituent mail and posts it on YouTube.
A "Dear Abby" of the train set is born.
"I'm spending typically four hours a day commuting. I'm trying to use that time commuting to engage with Delawareans. I'm trying to do things that make it clear that I'm reading e-mail, reading correspondence. I do think people want to hear from you directly and know it's you, the senator, responding," Coons said.
With hundreds and hundreds of constituents contacting the office, not everyone is getting a video response, of course. Aides are culling e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and old-fashioned letters communicating with Coons, who plans to post a batch of about 10 responses a month.
They are all about a minute long and begin with a train whistle and the senatorial seal. Coons says he is not preparing his answers but responding the same way he would take questions and comments at a town hall meeting or radio call-in program.
It is too early to tell how the YouTube replies are being received, particularly because Coons' office was willing or able to give out contact information for only one of the correspondents for an interview. This was someone who also happened to have volunteered for Coons' campaign.
He loved it. Imagine that.
"I was very proud that mine was the first question submitted for an answer," said Collins Batchelor, a property manager from Milford.
Batchelor went on Facebook to ask about generating more jobs, and Coons told him, "There's lots of things I think we can do in tax policy, in education, in training, in trade and in protecting American inventions or intellectual property."
Coons records his answers to the indifference of his fellow passengers, like the one who wanders into the video that introduces the concept of "Correspondence from the Commute."
This fellow comes into the camera range as he hikes his t-shirt, a glimpse of belly immortalized.