Making good things happen in the Washington spotlight

Congressman Brian Higgins talked to LSY! reporter Rebecca Brandel about balancing respect and informality when working with people in power. (Photo by Emma Smith)

Congressman Brian Higgins talked to LSY! reporter Rebecca Brandel about balancing respect and informality when working with people in power. (Photo by Emma Smith)

Life as a congressman is a varied one: Commuting every week between your hometown and Washington. Spending as many days out of town as you do at home. Working with everyone from the president of the United States to local business owners and families.

You’re constantly in the spotlight: You work for the people. You represent them in the nation’s capital. People expect you to change their lives for the better.  The people elected you.

You work for them.

That puts pressure on you and, by extension, your family.

This is the life Congressman Brian Higgins leads as the representative for New York’s 26th congressional district.

A long weekly commute

Congressman Higgins lives in Buffalo, but works in Washington four days a week, usually leaving Monday and returning home Thursday.

It’s a grueling schedule, but he keeps his time away from home to a minimum. When he was elected to Congress nine years ago, Higgins chose to keep his family in Buffalo, the same area where grew up, instead of moving them to Washington, as some members of Congress choose to do.

President Obama descending from Air Force One.

President Obama descending from Air Force One.

“I’m not a social member of Congress,” he said, “I don’t live in Washington so I don’t linger there, and I come back as soon as my work is finished there.”

Presidential communication

The congressman deals everyday with a lot of people in power, both publicly and privately. That includes Speaker of the House John Boehner, other members of Congress, rich businesspeople, and more. (He even once had a private meeting with the international rock star Bono of U2!)

It’s interesting to watch how a member of Congress interacts with other people. Sometimes they’re very formal. Other times, they’re informal. For example, in official settings or in public, Congressman Higgins would address the speaker of the house as “Mr. Speaker.” But informally, or privately, he calls him “John.”

“Informal dialect with somebody is more effective than a formal one,” Congressman Higgins said, explaining that when you’re formal, “you’re less likely to be as candid.”

Building relationships is important, too, because you never know whose level of influence is going to rise. For instance, Congressman Higgins knew Barack Obama before he became president. They used to work out at the same gym in Washington when then-Senator Obama was running for President.

When working with the president, Congressman Higgins’ approach reflects both a high respect for the office while treating him like an actual person.

For example, when President Obama visited upstate New York in August, Congressman Higgins, along with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, welcomed him at the airport. The greeting followed a format that reflected the ranking of each man’s position: As the president disembarked Air Force One, the governor was the first to say hello on the tarmac. Congressman Higgins was next, followed by the mayor. But the exchange wasn’t completely formal. The handshakes were followed by friendly, shoulder-patting hugs, and then the men joined the president on the bus that took him to a speech on higher education he was delivering at the University at Buffalo.

How does the congressman address the President?

Definitely not by his first name.

“‘President’ or ‘Mr. President,’” Congressman Higgins said. “(But) people are people, no matter what. You can be informal with him while still being highly respectful.”

Utilizing visibility and power

Although Congress’ job is to make laws, not everything requires Congressman Higgins to try to get a bill passed. He can also create change by gaining public support for his ideas through the media. As a member of Congress, he can sometimes provide funding for projects, too. For example, he has  successfully pushed for cleaning up Buffalo’s waterfront, clearing out wastelands and replacing them with parks, as well as helping to get funding for more construction.

“Our ability to try and get something done on an issue has something to do with getting other people to think the issue is important as well,” said the congressman.

Family ‘living their own lives’

But Congressman Higgins isn’t all work and no play — he’s a family man as well. He and his wife, Mary Jane, have two young-adult children, John and Maeve. How are they able to handle what comes with their dad’s job?

“My family has a very healthy sense of what I do and they don’t make it their lives, which is good,” he said. “They live their own lives.”

Rebecca Brandel, LSY! teen reporter, Mount St. Mary Academy

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  1. great article!!

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