University of Rochester

Politics at the Grassroots One Georgia district sets the stage for how, why the South changed in Congress

July 27, 2000

Political scientist Richard F. Fenno, Jr. finds the relationship between elected representatives and their constituents far more telling than battles between politicians. He's one of the few observers who spends more time watching over their shoulders on the home front than on how they vote in Washington.

Fenno's latest book, Congress at the Grassroots: Representational Change in the South, 1970-1998, describes the political life and style of two Georgia congressmen, Jack Flynt and Mac Collins. They served the same district-but 25 years apart-with starkly different styles and ideologies.

"The book puts a human face on one of the most profound changes in American politics in the South," says Fenno, professor of political science at the University of Rochester. "You could multiply this district and produce 25 or 30 seats in the Congress where the same pattern has taken hold," he says. "It represents a sea change in the South."

Since the 1970s, this district in west-central Georgia, just south of Atlanta, has changed from rural to suburban. Along with it, the voting majority has moved from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. That reality has contributed to making Congress "the very ideological and partisan place it is today," Fenno knows.

And just how does a member of Congress interact with constituents at the grassroots? In the case of Jack Flynt, who served from 1954 to 1978, a person-intensive strategy, as Fenno calls it, was his hallmark. The member's time and energy were focused on individual constituents, their lives and their problems. If they could call him by his first name, he was assured of their vote.

The essence of Mac Collins' style is just the opposite. It is built on a policy-intensive strategy, which is centered on policy dialogue and policy cooperation. Collins, who has held the seat since the early 1990s, connects with voters on identified issues important to them and their party. An entrepreneur, Collins embodies the social and demographic shifts that have made the district economically diverse and suburbanized.

Fenno points out that all successful members of Congress need both strategies to get elected, but one will dominate. From coffee shops to rallies on their home turf, Congress at the Grassroots (University of North Carolina Press, $34.95 cloth, $16.95 paper) explores how relationships between House members and their constituencies change. As a bonus, the book offers Fenno's research commentary from the 1970s when Flynt was a leading character in the political scientist's highly regarded 1978 study, Home Style: House Members in Their Districts.

One of the nation's most respected scholars of Congress, Fenno is Distinguished University Professor and Kenan Professor of Political Science at Rochester. He has written more than a dozen books about Congress and the American system of government.