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Mr. Horejsi Goes to Richmond

In the fight for social justice with patience and persistence.

John Horejsi, a Vienna resident and founder of SALT, with his wife Mariann.

John Horejsi, a Vienna resident and founder of SALT, with his wife Mariann. Photo Contributed

Every year, dozens of high-priced lobbyists descend on Virginia’s state capitol.

Q and A with John Horejsi

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: "I was born and grew up in a small Czech community called Bechyn, Minnesota – named after Bechyne located south of Prague in the Czech Republic, and the place where my family immigrated from to settle in Minnesota. Bechyn is located about 40 miles from the South Dakota border in southwest Minnesota."

Q: Who is your hero?

A: "Hubert Horatio Humphrey - vice president from 1965-69 under President Lyndon B. Johnson. He best exemplified ‘selfless and devoted service in the cause of human dignity for the poor.’ He knew that a government that cares about the unfortunate is a government that deserves our respect. He understood that compassion is not weakness and that concern for the unfortunate is not socialism."

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

A: Enjoy Vienna restaurants, visiting family and friends in Minnesota during Bechyn CzechFest celebration of Czech heritage/culture during the summer, and spending time with granddaughter in Virginia Beach. Also, love visiting friends in the Czech Republic. I also love to attend weekly free "Concerts on the Green" in Vienna during the summer Concert series.

Q: What's the best advice anyone ever gave you?

A: A workplace Motivational Speaker advised that if your impact on this world is limited because you’re not allowed to practice your social work training and skills, on your job, then you should use your skills to volunteer on your own time to make a difference. When I contacted then Supervisor Jim Scott, he immediately appointed me to the Fairfax County Social Services Advisory Board, and the Bishop of Arlington appointed me to the Catholic Charities Board of Arlington Diocese. From there, the founding of SALT (Social Action Linking Together) and many advocacy successes followed.

Q: What is the best advice you've given your children?

A: Make a difference with your life by working with people - to serve; not to be served.

Some tantalize with promises of business investment and jobs; others represent important campaign contributors, while some say they can deliver votes from key constituencies.

They are often joined by Vienna resident John Horejsi, 71, who offers legislators, a simple, singular opportunity: to do the right thing for the socially disadvantaged.

Part Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, part Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Horejsi is regarded by many lawmakers as a man of conviction and persistence.

Those traits often give him the credibility other lobbyists lack, when his idealistic — and sometimes naïve — pleas for social justice collide with more powerful and persuasive agendas.

And like Jefferson Smith — the character played by Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s timeless parable of Good vs. Evil — Horejsi believes that lawmakers have a moral imperative to care about the powerless and voiceless, the "least among us."

"There are times when he’s a little bit like Robin Hood," said state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31), a potent ally who has helped Horejsi advance legislation that helps the poor, the homeless, prisoners and children. "The difference is that John doesn’t have a bow and arrow to convince the rich to help the poor."

"I guess that’s true. I don’t have a bow and arrow, and there are times I feel like Mr. Smith in Richmond," Horejsi said, smiling. Like Jefferson Smith, Horejsi said he wouldn’t give "two cents for all the fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness, and a little looking out for the other fella too."

After speaking to a group about homelessness and hunger during a Catholic Charities conference in 1981, Horejsi found others willing to fight for "the other fella" in Richmond. He and a "ragtag band" of eight formed Social Action Linking Together, commonly known as "SALT."

What began with a few social justice pioneers is now one of the most active and influential nonpartisan advocacy groups from Northern Virginia with 1,200-plus active members.

SALT’s mission is simple: keep social justice issues front and center with Virginia lawmakers. But the group’s legislative initiatives touch a staggeringly wide range of public welfare issues. Since the early 1980s, SALT has introduced bills benefitting the homeless, children, families, employees who face discrimination and other low-income Virginians who lack a secure safety net.

According to Robert Stewart, a founding member of SALT, members bring "the social, economic and justice teachings of their faith to bear on public policy and legislation."

Whether lawmakers support SALT’s message or not, many respect the messenger, who has a knack for being pushy without being rude and insolent.

"He is a very nice man with a big heart. He states the way we all wish the world would be," said Del. David Albo (R-42), the most senior Republican from Northern Virginia in Richmond. "But the world is not always like the way we want it to be."

"(His) work with the Homeless Intervention Program (HIP) and SALT alone has done more good for more people than most citizens are capable of imagining," said Del. Ken Plum (D-36), who has served in the Virginia legislature since 1982.

As an elected official, Plum said he hears regularly from constituents who sometimes lack the basic necessities in life.

"I know what John’s activism over the years has meant to Northern Virginians," Plum said.

A TRANSFORMING MOMENT

Like most movements that have a profound and lasting impact, SALT was years in the making.

For Horejsi, the seeds of compassion were planted early.

He was born and raised in the tiny farming town of Bechyn, Minn. — which listed its population as 30 in the 1920 U.S. Census. Shortly after World War II, Horejsi’s mother died and his father was unable to care for him.

He was taken in by impoverished relatives, who treated him, he said, with kindness.

"When my mother died everything changed. Since my father was unable to care for me, I was placed into the state social services Kinship Care system," Horejsi said.

"Who knows what would have happened to me or where I would be today without their help and the support of social services. Being aware of my personal situation sensitized me and always made me feel like I should do something," he said.

Horejsi said another powerful event in his life was meeting a 16-year-old homeless teen in Alexandria in 1985. When the girl’s mother was laid off from her job, they became homeless, living out of their car for a short time before moving to a homeless shelter for six months.

"After meeting her, I felt strongly that we should help the homeless. That’s when we started our successful advocacy for the Homeless Intervention Program (HIP) to prevent homelessness," Horejsi said.

Thanks to programs and services available to the homeless, the young woman went on to study with the Virginia Ballet School and Company and earned a law degree from Catholic University in 1993.

Horejsi said he will never forget her. "In fact, many people might know her name today, because they voted her into office," Horejsi said.

The homeless teen Horejsi met was Charneille Herring, who has served as a Democrat in the Virginia House of Delegates, representing the 46th district, since 2009. In December 2012, she became the first African-American elected chair of the Democratic Party of Richmond.

"These kinds of life events cause you to think, ‘What are you doing for others?’"

A MAJOR VICTORY; A STUNNING DEFEAT The political culture in Richmond is frequently compared to a Greek tragedy — most of the plot twists and turns happen off stage. Those who don’t know how the system works, or who don’t know how to work the system, soon get frustrated and give up.

"Richmond is not constituent-friendly," Horejsi said. "It is very frustrating and disappointing that many of our bills pass the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support and then die in some sub-committee."

The political winds are constantly shifting, and Horejsi said he and other SALT advocates must constantly monitor bills during session, so they have an opportunity to educate legislators and influence their votes.

"This year started off as an amazing surprise," Horejsi said. "During our first visit we met with 11 legislators — not just their aides. This was a record."

"There seemed to be a new era of good feeling and cooperation. Almost all our bills began to pass quickly through assigned subcommittees and then full committees unanimously with lightning speed," Horejsi said.

But during "crossover" — when bills pass from the Senate to the House — several SALT-backed bills stalled, getting caught in the larger political crossfire that goes hand-in-hand with crossover.

Take Medicaid expansion, for example, which was SALT’s number one priority this session.

On Saturday, March 8, the General Assembly adjourned its 60-day session, yet lawmakers left Richmond without passing Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s number one priority — a $96 billion budget that included expanding Medicaid eligibility for roughly 400,000 Virginia residents.

Republicans in the GOP-controlled House opposed the expansion, saying the rapidly-growing program still needs reform, and the debate should be separated from the budget.

A key part of the new federal health care law, the issue deadlocked the GOP-controlled House and the Democratically-controlled Senate. In response, McAuliffe immediately called for a special session to begin in two weeks.

SALT members argue that turning down roughly $5 million a day in federal funds associated with expanded Medicaid eligibility could have severe consequences, such as shutting down many hospitals in rural communities.

SALT also lost its battle to "Ban the Box." If passed, Virginia would have joined the growing number of states that give job applicants with a prior criminal conviction a "fair chance" at getting a job.

The legislation, filed by Del. Rob Krupicka (D-45), would have removed the box on applications for state jobs that asks people if they have been convicted of a felony.

"This is not about hiding an individual's past," Krupicka said in a letter to constituents, noting that employers can still ask about criminal history during the interview process.

"All this bill aims to do is help ex-offenders reach more job interviews that hopefully will lead to more jobs … In Alexandria alone, 13 people are released from jail every day. In trying to re-integrate into society, finding employment can be one of the most useful factors in reducing recidivism rates," Krupicka said.

Horejsi called Ban the Box an "essential" component of any meaningful program designed to help former prisoners reenter society, and said he was extremely disheartened when it failed — at the 11th hour — in the House Courts of Justice Committee, chaired by Del. Dave Albo.

"I wish the world was like John (envisions it), but taxpayers are maxed out, and there are violent people among us that the only place safe is to have them in prison," Albo said in an interview Sunday. "We have limited money and there are bad guys out there that want to hurt people. John's positions are always what we could do with unlimited money and assume that all criminals could be rehabilitated."

In the plus column, SALT was successful in moving work share legislation through the General Assembly and on to the governor’s desk for his signature.

State Senators George Barker (D-39) and Bill Stanley (R-20) were instrumental in getting the legislation passed this year, after it failed last year. Horejsi said both senators, and SALT advocates, worked closely with the Virginia Employment Commission to ensure that the bill works with current VEC programs.

The program lessens the impact of layoffs by allowing employers to reduce the hours of their existing work force instead of letting employees go. A kind of unemployment insurance in reverse, the program comes with free federal dollars to keep workers in their jobs instead of supporting them after they’re laid off.

"Having been through the recession and recent slight increases in Virginia unemployment rates as federal sequestration takes effect, it is important that we give Virginia businesses all the tools we can to help them and their employees get through challenging times. This bill does that," Barker said in an interview at the beginning of this year’s legislative session.

Horejsi admits there are times when he gets discouraged by "politics as usual."

"What keeps me going are notes like this, from a parishioner of St. Anne’s," Horejsi said:

"John, I just want you to know I appreciate all of these emails you send. I was at St. Ann's community weekend today. I saw your sign-up sheet. I feel bad that with all that is going on with my life right now, that i haven't had time to help, but please keep the emails coming. I enjoy your posts. Every once in a while it is a helpful reminder that there are others who care."

"I truly believe there is always hope," Horejsi said, after the General Assembly session ended. "For example, Sen. Jill Vogel, the only Republican senator to vote for our Ban the Box bill during a lively debate, made a beautiful and inspiring speech about some of her most loyal employees being those with former convictions."

Horejsi is already gearing up for next year’s session, studying legislation and organizing constituent education meetings.

Despite the sometimes overwhelming odds against social justice bills, Horejsi said he refuses to let social justice issues become submerged in the tide of legislation that benefits only wealthy corporations and constituents

"Legislators have told us that what they really respect about us is that we’re not asking anything for ourselves," Horejsi said. "We’re asking on behalf of those who are the most desperate and in the greatest need … That’s why SALT will remain intimately involved in the process."

For more information on SALT, and how to get involved, visit the SALT website at www.S-A-L-T.org.