One busy day inside the beltway matters

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The morning begins with a brisk walk down 14th Street, seeing hordes of workers on their trek, drive or ride to another day of making America’s federal government run.

Off in the distance, the Capitol sits, surrounded by the office buildings that house literally thousands of legislative staffers, working for the lawmakers, leaders, committees and subcommittees of Congress.

You stare at the massive, intimidating complex, and wonder how any single person or small group visiting from 1,500 miles away could ever come inside the Beltway and make even a tiny ripple of a difference.

Then, in the space of one long, fascinating and enlightening day, you see it actually happen. And you realize how valuable it can be to have 30 community leaders spending most of a week in D.C., pursuing their priorities and spreading a message far more effectively than phone calls, letters and emails ever could.

You get the feeling that the Springs won’t be forgotten.

The contingent was split into four groups who fanned across the metropolis for dozens of meetings, each one a different fact-finding or information-sharing mission. When some of those sessions inevitably were shuffled, groups divided into sub-groups.

In our case, four of us on the “Infrastructure Team” wound up taking our fire- and flood-mitigation agenda to three distinct, yet all important, destinations. And our ringleader was County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who demonstrated during a hectic seven-hour stretch how a determined public official can negotiate the system and have a considerable, immediate impact.

We started on the bottom floor of the cavernous Longworth office building, one of three that encompass the House of Representatives operations. Our destination was the House Subcommittee for National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, part of the House Committee on Natural Resources. That subcommittee, like so many others on Capitol Hill, has its own staff that helps develop and push legislation for agencies such as the Forest Service.

This has become Clark’s obsession, as she looks for ways to find funding and better legislation to help Colorado Springs recover from its natural disasters and hopefully become better prepared for the future. So she did most of the talking as we met with Jim Streeter, a veteran bureaucrat who heads that subcommittee’s staff, as well as James Thomas, the new legislative director for Rep. Doug Lamborn, a member of that subcommittee.

By the time our conversation was done, Streeter committed to putting Colorado Springs on the agenda for a congressional hearing as soon as next month. And Thomas took a vial of gunk from Fountain Creek, which he hoped Lamborn would take to the House floor as a visual aid for comments on a forest-related bill. Later, our group talked about pushing that subcommittee to make a road trip to Colorado for a field hearing, which Lamborn and others might be able to pull off.

From there, we took the Metro train across the Potomac to Rosslyn, Va., for a 90-minute (long by D.C. standards) meeting with several high-level Forest Service officials. They shared their frustration at not being able to help more, but as one of them put it, “You people are being very proactive looking at other resources, and what you’re doing is more advanced than any areas I’ve seen. It’s a huge difference.”

You get the feeling, from seeing that kind of sincerity in person, that Colorado Springs won’t be forgotten amid the other disasters that have struck north of Denver and in California or other states.

That was equally obvious an hour later, back near the Capitol in U.S. Sen. Mark Udall’s office, where staffers promised to make sure the Corps of Engineers — another of Clark’s stops on this one day — would not lose track of the Springs’ needs and special funding requests.

And just to be sure no stone was left unturned, Clark made sure to drop off informational packets — along with more vials of Fountain Creek sludge — at the offices of Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. Why? Because they could make a difference in committee votes. And because Clark, just elected second vice president of the National Association of Counties, can make her voice heard even more now.

The day ended with one last thought. If not for one energetic leader like Sallie Clark, the power of having community leaders take their case to Washington, and top-notch lobbyists setting up most of the meetings, what chances might we have missed? And would anybody have cared so much about helping Colorado Springs get aid for fire-related floods in the coming years?

We probably know those answers.