Seated at the
Great-Gathering-in head table are (left to right) President Maurer at the podium,
Diane McGeorge, James Gashel, and Kristen Cox.
For about twenty years now we have conducted our Washington Seminar in late January and early February. Looking back, it is remarkable that the weather has never before presented significant trouble. One year a sudden ice storm late one afternoon forced those walking back to the hotel from the Capitol to skate part of the way, and snowstorms from time to time have caused a few people problems coming or going. But by and large we have been very lucky.
That luck began to wear thin this year. Just before the seminar began, a storm traveled up from the South, dumping snow and ice in large quantities as it came. Washington, which doesn't even have many snow shovels, never mind serious snow-removal equipment, lay helpless for several days under more than a foot of snow. By Friday, though, the airports were open, and the planes that could get off the ground in other cities could land in Washington.
But more snow and ice were on the way. By Sunday, when tours of the National Center were scheduled, the forecasters were predicting everything from rain to another foot of snow. Apparently the meteorologists were so unnerved by having misjudged the speed with which the earlier storm was going to move in and level the city that they over-compensated by assuring us that everything they could think of in the precipitation line was going to fall on Washington, and in the end most of it did.
But it turned out not to be as bad as it might have been, and the rain/sleet/snow didn't begin falling until after noon, but several inches of the stuff certainly came down all afternoon and into the evening, causing the postponement of office-openings for a couple of hours Monday morning.
On the whole we were amazingly lucky. Hundreds of Federationists poured into Washington from all over the country in time for the student party Friday evening and the Mid-Winter Conference of the National Association of Blind Students all day Saturday. The seminar was splendid, and a wonderful banquet capped the event with good food, fine fellowship, and an inspiring address by NFB Treasurer Allen Harris. The Research and Development Committee met in Baltimore Saturday, and so many workshops took place at the hotel on Sunday that we ran out of meeting space.
By 5:00 p.m. well over 400 Federationists from forty-four states were gathered in the Columbia Room for the Great Gathering-in meeting of the 2000 Washington Seminar. A CNN news crew was even on hand to gather footage and interviews for a story about our efforts to have blind workers in sheltered workshops covered by minimum-wage protection.
Dr. Maurer reviewed the highlights of recent Federation activities. Director of Governmental Affairs Jim Gashel spoke generally about our work for the week. His assistant, Kristen Cox, dealt with the details of the issues we would be discussing, and Diane McGeorge made sure that everyone's hotel arrangements were working out properly. By 7:00 the meeting ended, and some rushed off to watch the Super Bowl while others headed for dinner and delegation planning for the morning.
Despite the two-hour delay Monday morning on the Hill, Federationists put in a full day in Congressional offices, discussing our three issues for this legislative year. (See the following article for the details.) Everyone was back in our briefing room by 6:30 to hear from Republican Congressman John Shimkus of Illinois, who announced that he was an original cosponsor of H.R. 3540, introduced the previous Thursday by Congressman Johnny Isakson of Georgia. When passed, this law will remove blindness from the list of worker conditions permitting employers to receive certificates of exemption from paying the minimum wage. Everyone enjoyed Mr. Shimkus's short speech and his enthusiasm for our cause.
Even those new to the Washington-Seminar routine quickly caught on to the requirements. Those returning from the Hill went straight to the Mercury Room to report on their meetings to the staff of volunteers organized by Sandy Halverson and Judy Sanders. There is something supremely satisfying to a Federationist in contributing to a record-keeping system conducted entirely in Braille. The information was fed into the computer, and Mrs. Cox got the information she needed with amazing speed and accuracy.
By Wednesday, though a number of meetings were still taking place on the Hill, many affiliates had met all their members and were heading home. The Congressional delegations whose constituents had been prevented from getting to the Washington Seminar this year because of weather had been covered by Federationists from neighboring states. Once again this year we visited every member of the House and Senate and discussed our fact sheets with them and their staffs.
We went home with Mrs. Cox's words ringing in our ears: "This is only the beginning of our legislative work for 2000." Now it's time to write letters, send faxes, and urge our members to sign on to our bills and keep working for our issues. The Washington Seminar is a splendid way to participate in the democratic process. Already we are recording additional cosponsors on our various bills. We must keep up the pressure on Congress to do what is right for blind Americans.