University of Rochester

Politicians at Home: The True Test of a House Member's Value

May 9, 2003

What is mysterious and irritating about the workings of Congress can be transformed when elected representatives walk the streets of their home districts. The political becomes personal. People-to-people connections matter.

"Home, not Washington, is the place where most House member-constituent contact occurs and the place where judgment is ultimately rendered," writes political scientist Richard F. Fenno, Jr., in his new book Going Home: Black Representatives and Their Constituents. His research, interviews, observations, and storytelling focus on four African Americans elected to Congress and how they dealt with constituents.

Like Fenno's dozen previous books, Going Home (University of Chicago Press, $18 paperback) is built on the premise that it's more valuable to see an elected representative with constituents at home than with politicians and lobbyists in Washington.

Fenno analyzes Louis Stokes of Cleveland, the late Barbara Jordan of Houston, Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia, and Stephanie Tubbs Jones, now a Cleveland Congresswoman, as they operate in their home districts. Though he doesn't consider himself an expert on African-American politics, Fenno used this vantage point to study political change. He gives all of them ample room to present their points of view as he travels from community meetings to rallies and personal interviews.

"I enjoy thinking about change," says Fenno, Distinguished University Professor and William J. Kenan Professor of Political Science at Rochester. "The change in black politics has been huge." Thirty years ago, there were nine African Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives. Today there are four times that number.

In the 1970s, Fenno shadowed Stokes and Jordan in their home districts; the other two representatives were new to him when he began this book three years ago. All represent urban areas and majority black districts.

Going Home adds another dimension to Fenno's stature as the dean of Congressional studies with a research repertoire centered on the importance of representation in a democracy. "Representation is one of the great organizing concepts in the field of political science," says Fenno. "It is what the struggle for equality and inclusion is all about."

"My hope is that African-American students of politics will recognize in this book something that seems real to them-something of their world," he says. "I would also hope that students of African-American politics and African-American students will go out and do research themselves."