By Ramsey Cox - 02/06/12 10:00 AM EST
Most of the freshman class had a challenging first year, but none was tougher than Rep. Terri Sewell’s (D-Ala.). Four months into her first term as an elected official, tornadoes devastated her district.
After the event, Sewell reread Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography — and this time a different passage resonated with her.
“My takeaway this time was ‘the measure of a man is not where he stands in times of convenience but where he stands in times of challenge,’” Sewell said. “Going through the April tornadoes was our challenge, and how we as a state sort of figured out how to get beyond that and pick ourselves up and recover and rebuild and feel very strong about our efforts to do so.”
“I had never been an elected official before, and four months into your first year to have so much devastation occur in my district, and for the federal assistance to be so important to the recovery effort, it was very difficult for me to see,” Sewell said. “The thing that we tried to focus on [was] constituency first — helping your constituents access the maze that is the federal government.”
Sewell said her office was able to secure $1.3 million in retroactive benefits and $20 million in grants to rebuild. As she put it, “Every dollar matters.”
Sewell said the devastation brought the Alabama delegation closer. She is the sole Democrat representing Alabama, but the tornadoes forced everybody to put aside differences and work together.
“People died and houses were leveled, schools leveled and we had to roll up our sleeves as colleagues, the whole delegation, to work on getting disaster assistance for the people of Alabama,” Sewell said. “We didn’t see red or blue, but we saw Alabamians in need, and I felt like we really worked together as a delegation to try to help the folks in Alabama,” setting an example she thinks could serve others well.
Sewell is the first black woman elected to represent the state known as the Heart of Dixie. The history of Alabama and her upbringing greatly influenced her sense of duty. Her mother was the first black woman to sit on the Selma City Council, and both parents were educators.
“I come from a family of preachers and teachers and farmers — all of which are very community-based professions,” Sewell said. “So I feel very blessed to have grown up in an environment where public service was expected, and they say, ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’ and that’s true.”
One of the biggest influences in Sewell’s life was the first black woman to serve in Congress, the late Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.). Sewell’s senior thesis at Princeton was titled, “Black Women in Politics: Our Time Has Come.” While working on it, she was able to interview Chisholm.
“I remember what she told me, and she’s sort of known for saying, ‘Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth’ — what a great saying,” Sewell said. “What a great truth too, because she lived that and I see my role as a member of Congress representing my home district in that same light.”
Sewell represents parts of Alabama infamous for their opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, but new restrictive voter-identification and illegal-immigration laws trouble her.
“I think that in this day and age, especially the district I represent — the civil rights district, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery — we should be promoting voter participation and not voter suppression,” Sewell said.
Sewell used her father, who had a series of strokes a few years ago, as an example of people with disabilities being disenfranchised by voter-identification laws. Now wheelchair-bound, her father’s driver’s license has expired, meaning he would not be able to vote for his daughter in the next election if he doesn’t get it rectified.
“It’s shown that minority communities are less likely to have these validly issued government IDs,” Sewell said. “My daddy votes with his validly issued Social Security card, and the reality is that my mom and I would make sure that my daddy gets a validly issued photo ID, but not everybody has access to that. That’s the point.”
Sewell said she worries that the new voter ID law and strict illegal-immigration laws in Alabama are pushing the state backward, not forward.
Alabama’s illegal-immigration law, passed last year, has come under scrutiny from the Department of Justice for racial profiling, discrimination and enforcement issues.
“I think what’s the most troubling about Alabama’s [immigration] law is that it encourages racial profiling I think in a state that we fought so hard to overcome a stereotype of intolerance for differentness, it conjures up the same images of Alabama, and I come from a family that has fought that stereotype,” Sewell said. “I love my state, and this sets that back.”