The Budget Activist: How to Lobby Your Elected Officials

The morning of November 9, 2016, Alexandra Gunnison turned to her local “Pantsuit Nation” chapter seeking signs of hope after not only the election of Trump, but the narrow reelection of conservative Republican senator Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. The “Pantsuit Nation” movement had sprung up as a series of “secret” Facebook groups enthusiastic about the election of Hillary Clinton, but quickly evolved into a space for grieving, organizing, and moving forward.

The days after the election saw a surge in hate crimes – swastikas spray-painted on windows, racial slurs drawn on cars, people being harassed in the streets. When Alexandra learned that Senator Toomey’s staffers didn’t seem to be taking calls about the rash of local hate crimes seriously, she posted on the group to see if anyone wanted to join her in showing up at his local Philadelphia office.

Alexandra, who now works in childcare, had grown up with two highly political parents and done her own grassroots advocacy work in D.C., so she knew that showing up at an elected official’s office was not unheard of. When she showed up with six other women, many of whom she was meeting for the first time, Toomey’s office manager came down to the lobby and spoke with them briefly about their concerns. The women asked, among other things, that Toomey voice his opposition to the appointment of Steve Bannon, invoking Toomey’s promise to “not be a rubber stamp” for President Trump.

Senator Toomey did not have a great reputation for meeting with concerned constituents, failing to hold a town hall since 2013 – and having never held a town hall in Pennsylvania’s largest city, Philadelphia. Ironically enough, in May 2016 Senator Toomey wrote an op-ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer imploring then presidential nominee Donald Trump to “seek to unite and listen more.”

The first two weeks were impromptu gatherings in the lobby where an office representative agreed to come down for a brief chat. The following two weeks, a representative from Toomey’s staff actually met with them in his office and listened to their concerns. The process and conversations were amiable and respectful – in fact, I was there for many of these. The fifth week was the first time they were denied a meeting and told that the staff was unavailable, though a representative from the office came down to collect their letters.

In an attempt to address wide-ranging concerns, each Tuesday with Toomey includes a key message and mission, with topics including protecting healthcare, addressing the president’s conflicts of interests, and opposing Toomey’s threats to defund sanctuary cities.

When they gathered for the sixth week to ask the Senator to protect the environment by developing bipartisan legislation to address Pennsylvania’s lead and air pollution crisis, the reception began to further unravel. The group of about 60 people included several children and members from like-minded local organizations like 350 Philadelphia and Moms Clean Air Force.

But when they went to enter the building they were met with locked doors and security guards blocking the entrance. They were told there was no one at the Senator’s office, even though many of them had phone communications with the office that day. No one would pick up the phone and no one would come down to collect the letters.

So what did they do? They grew.

Tuesdays with Toomey expanded its leadership to include visits and rallies at his offices in Allentown, Pittsburgh, Scranton, and Johnston. Weekly crowds soared to more than 500, with local and national press coverage including spots on The Rachel Maddow Show.

Numbers kept growing and inspiring movement across the region including “Mondays with Meehan” and “Fridays with Frelinghuysen,” both of whom, incidentally, announced that they would not be running for reelection in 2018.

“’Tuesdays with Toomey’ started as an attempt to sway the Senator. We brought in speakers who knew policy really well and tried to be extremely civil and bipartisan,” Alexandra says. “But we quickly found that he was absolutely impenetrable – now it’s just an out and out protest.”

And though the crowds have waned significantly as the months and years into Toomey’s tenure go by, Alexandra believes the movement still holds significant value.

“’Tuesdays With Toomey’ has become a local leader for continued lobbyist action,” she says. “If there’s an action that involves Toomey, we are contacted by the media. And now we are more focused on education and advocacy around the state as an action network.”

Alexandra says each city continues to bring in its own speakers with its own topics – often broader themes that were affecting the country before Trump was ever elected.

“It’s become more about trying to educate a base of people who may or may not have been involved in political organizing before. Many people are learning this stuff for the first time, but we are partnering with organizations that have already been doing this work.”

Alexandra also believes Toomey must feel the immense pressure this movement has put upon him. “I don’t think he’ll make it in 2022. I’d be surprised if he runs again – and shocked if he won, though the memory of the average voter can be short.”

What Works From a Politician

I spoke with my friend Brian Sims, a Democratic house representative here in Pennsylvania, about the best way to make an impact with your elected officials.

He says the most important part is to actually speak to your elected officials!

“There are so many people with informed opinions sharing their thoughts with friends, family, and coworkers, but they’re not taking them to their elected officials,” he says. “It’s a really easy thing now to Google and find your legislators’ contact information.”

He says you should tell your legislators how issues specifically impact you. If you are calling about the environment speak about how bad air quality specifically impacts you and your asthma, your school and work days and productivity.

“Some legislators are scared to death of experts and the expertise we are talking about right now is personal experience,” he says. “Reaching out to tell them why things impact you directly is one of the most important things you can do right now.”

Brian says while he is seeing a lot of success on social media with Twitter and Facebook, the personal calls will always matter most. Mass emails are less and less impactful because they aren’t personal messages, but individual personal emails matter more.

In person meetings with staff are good too and not impossible to schedule.

“Most staff believe and care about the things their boss believes in, and when they share info from meetings with constituents they tend to listen,” he says.

You have state representatives and senators for your section of your state or country, but their votes affect the whole state and country. So is it worthwhile to contact reps if you are not a direct constituent?

Brian says not all legislators will take that seriously, however many do realize that their votes affect the whole state or the whole country. It’s also worthwhile to reach out to the leadership of majority and minority leaders that lead the whole state house or senate.

“Many of us come from other regions or have strong relationships with other regions,” he says. “You may have your family in Pittsburgh but live in Philadelphia and work in New Jersey. Reach out to the family members and places we’re from and have them reach out to their legislators.”

Political affiliation can be of interest particularly when sharing non-traditional views, like a registered Democrat who is pro-life or a registered republication who is passionate about curbing man-made climate change

“Every citizen voice matters and because our votes affect the whole state we have no business telling somebody that their issues or their voice doesn’t matter because they’re not constituents,” he says.

If You Have Five Minutes:

Download “5 Calls” app to your phone – and use it daily. More effective than emails and faxes, calling members of Congress is the best way to have your voice heard. Staffers typically tally calls and the representatives are given a count, gauging the temperature on specific issues. The 5 Calls app does the research for each issue, determining which representatives are most influential for which topic, and provides you with phone numbers and written scripts clearly articulating a progressive position.

If You Have an Hour:

Attend a town hall. Beyond the telephone, in person is the ultimate way to make a major impact on your elected official – especially if you ask a question tied to a personal story. Town halls are a longstanding American tradition where our elected representatives must listen and respond to the concerns of their constituents. However, some officials (*cough* Toomey) have been in hiding from this tradition. You can find a full list of local town halls and other public events with members of Congress in your district at townhallproject.com.



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