The 110th session of the U.S. Congress opened in Washington with the participation of its new members, those elected last November. Today’s edition of our television program “Reportaz Apo Washington” takes a look at the new Congress and the freshmen Representatives of Greek decent.
110th CONGRESS: THE GREEK AMERICAN FRESHMEN
MR. BISTIS: For the first time in 12 years the Democratic Party has assumed control in both chambers of Congress, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Also for the first time a woman has been chosen to preside over one of these two legislative bodies.
Nancy Pelosi, the liberal philhellene Congresswoman from California, was sworn in as Speaker of the House of Representatives and made history for she is the only woman ever to reach this most important office. Ms. Pelosi is now third in the line of Presidential succession, with Vice President Dick Cheney being the second. She called it a very special moment for both the U.S. Congress and for women in America.
SPEAKER PELOSI: It is a moment for which we waited over 200 years. Never losing faith, we waited through the many years of struggle to achieve our rights.”
MR. BISTIS: Ms. Pelosi wants to enact stricter ethical guidelines for all lawmakers who serve in her chamber. In fact, she has made this issue a top priority in the House of Representatives.
MS. PELOSI: “In order to achieve our new America for a 21st century, we must return this House to the American people. So, our first order of business is passing the toughest congressional ethics reform in history.”
MR. BISTIS: A freshman Greek-American congressman, Zack (Zachariah) Space from Ohio, who based his campaign on the promise that he will never accept gifts from special interests or lobbyists, was given the distinct honor and privilege to introduce the first of the Democratic legislative proposals for raising the ethics bar in Congress. Zack has been inspired by the principles that his “papou” and “yiayia”, who emigrated more than half a century ago from the Greek island of Ikaria, instilled in the last two generations of his family.
CONGRESSMAN SPACE: “Coming from a Greek family we learned very early the importance of loyalty to family, the importance of personal responsibility, the importance of hard work and the values that frankly we have seen lacking in Washington D.C. I am optimistic we would be able to take these values with us to our nation’s capital and help make this country a better place.”
MR. BISTIS: Another new Greek-American Congressman, John Sarbanes (Yannis Sarbanis), from the State of Maryland, also paid tribute to his parents and grandparents thanking them for giving him a last name that he is proud of.
CONGRESSMAN SARBANES: “It has never been a burden to carry the Sarbanes name, because it is a name which comes with such tremendous reputation for honesty, for integrity and commitment to public service. So, I would ask you all to join me in saluting my father for his 36 years of service in the U.S. Congress.”
MR. BISTIS: John Sarbanes, like his father Paul, goes to a Greek-Orthodox church and maintains a close association with the Hellenic community. He also takes seriously his role as a leader of the new generation of Greek-Americans.
CONGRESSMAN SARBANES: “There are a lot of young Greek-Americans in this country who are ready to step forward and contribute in a meaningful way to the American society, sharing their Hellenic values. It is an exciting time to be in this generation, to be part of the leadership of this generation in the Greek-American community, to try to tap into that energy and channel it in some positive directions.”
MR. BISTIS: Christine Sarbanes shines with pride both as a wife and as a mother.
MS. SARBANES: “I feel very, very happy. It is a terrific day in our lives. I think Paul had a wonderful career; he is going out at the top of his game; he accomplished a great deal and in the right way. We are very proud of his record and the ethics he has shown all the way through. I believe, I know, my son John will be just like his father, ethical, honest, hard working, caring about the people.”
MR. BISTIS: Praise and affection for John Sarbanes does not come only from family members and his ethnic community. Karen Webber, a proponent of civil rights, traveled by bus from Baltimore City to Washington just so that she would see him sworn in.
MS. WEBBER: “I came by bus but I would have walked for John, honestly. We wanted to be here and show him how much we love and support him.”
MR. BISTIS: Roselyn Goldner is a volunteer, who has worked for all the election campaigns of the Sarbanes family. She started with Paul, almost four decades ago, and last year she helped John achieve his first election victory. Actually she knows the new Congressman since he was a baby. Roselyn thinks that the House of Representatives might just be the first step in John’s political career.
MS. GOLDNER: “I’d like to live long enough to see how high he will go. I think he will go all the way to the top.”
MR. BISTIS: The Congressional Hellenic Caucus will have a new Republican co-chair this year. He is Gus (Constantine) Bilirakis, a freshman Congressman from Florida, who succeeds in the U.S. House of Representatives his father Michael Bilirakis, the former co-chair of the Hellenic Caucus. Michael just retired after a distinguished service of more than two and a half decades in the U.S. House of Representatives. Gus is equally proud of his heritage.
CONGRESSMAN BILIRAKIS: “My father’s family came from Kalymnos, in the island complex of Dodecanese. My mother’s family also descends from Kalymnos. They came to Tarpon Springs, Florida, to work in the sponge industry, which was then thriving. I was raised in Tarpon Springs, remained close to our Greek-Orthodox Church and learned the Greek language. My family and I still keep the Greek traditions and customs.”
MR. BISTIS: In the first days of the new Congress all its members vowed to demonstrate a bipartisan spirit that would allow Republicans and Democrats to find common ground on the issues that currently divide them. However, as a political analyst observed: “In the U.S. Congress the ideal of political cooperation often collides with the realities of partisan interests”. Only time will tell whether this anticipated collision would be hard or soft. However, Greek-American members of Congress, regardless of party affiliation, seem determined to work together to promote the high principles that unite them and to make their ethnic community proud.