This chapter describes the nuts and bolts of implementing four advocacy tactics to put pressure on your three Members of Congress (MoCs) — your Representative and two Senators. Before we get there though, there are a few things all local groups should do:
Begin with these five steps to gather intel. Before anything else, take the following five steps to arm yourself with information necessary for all future advocacy activities.
- Find your three MoCs, their official websites, and their office contact info at www.callmycongress.com.
- Sign up on your MoCs’ websites to receive regular email updates, invites to local events, and propaganda to understand what they’re saying. Every MoC has an e-newsletter.
- Find out where your MoCs stand on the issues of the day — appointment of white supremacists, tax cuts for the rich, etc. Review their voting history at VoteSmart.org. Research their biggest campaign contributors at OpenSecrets.org.
- Set up a Google News Alert (http://www.google.com/alerts) — for example for “Rep. Bob Smith” — to receive an email whenever your MoCs are in the news.
- Research on Google News (https://news.google.com/news) what local reporters have written about your MoCs. Find and follow those reporters on Twitter, and build relationships. Before you attend or plan an event, reach out and explain why your group is protesting, and provide them with background materials and a quote. Journalists on deadline — even those who might not agree with you — appreciate when you provide easy material for a story
NOTE ON SAFETY AND PRIVILEGE
We do not yet know how Trump supporters will respond to organized shows of opposition, but we have seen enough to be very concerned that minorities will be targeted or singled out. Plan your actions to ensure that no one is asked to take on a role that they are not comfortable with — especially those roles that call for semi-confrontational behavior — and be mindful of the fact that not everyone is facing an equal level of threat. Members of your group who enjoy more privilege should think carefully about how they can ensure that they are using their privilege to support other members of the group. If you are concerned about potential law enforcement intimidation, consider downloading your state’s version of the ACLU Mobile Justice app to ensure that any intimidating behavior is captured on film. Please familiarize yourself with your state and local laws that govern recording, along with any applicable Senate or House rules, prior to recording. These laws and rules vary substantially from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
TOWN HALLS/LISTENING SESSIONS
MoCs regularly hold local “town halls” or public listening sessions throughout their districts or state. Tea Partiers used these events to great effect — both to directly pressure their MoCs and to attract media to their cause.
- Find out when your MoC’s next public town hall event is. Sometimes these are announced well in advance, and sometimes, although they are technically "public," only select constituents are notified about them shortly before the event. If you can’t find announcements online, call your MoC directly to find out. When you call, be friendly and say to the staffer, “Hi, I’m a constituent, and I’d like to know when his/her next town hall forum will be.” If they don’t know, ask to be added to the email list so that you get notified when they do.
- Send out a notice of the town hall to your group, and get commitments from members to attend. Distribute to all of them whatever information you have on your MoC’s voting record, as well as the prepared questions.
- Prepare several questions ahead of time for your group to ask. Your questions should be sharp and fact-based, ideally including information on the MoC’s record, votes they’ve taken, or statements they’ve made. Thematically, questions should focus on a limited number of issues to maximize impact. Prepare 5-10 of these questions and hand them out to your group ahead of the meeting. Example question:
“I and many district families in Springfield rely on Medicare. I don’t think we should be rationing health care for seniors, and the plan to privatize Medicare will create serious financial hardship for seniors who can’t afford it. You haven’t gone on the record opposing this. Will you commit here and now to vote no on Bill X to cut Medicare?”
SHOULD I BRING A SIGN?
Signs can be useful for reinforcing the sense of broad agreement with your message. However, if you’re holding an oppositional sign, staffers will almost certainly not give you or the people with you the chance to get the mic or ask a question. If you have enough people to both ask questions and hold signs, though, then go for it!
At the Town Hall
- Get there early, meet up, and get organized. Meet outside or in the parking lot for a quick huddle before the event. Distribute the handout of questions, and encourage members to ask the questions on the sheet or something similar.
- Get seated and spread out. Head into the venue a bit early to grab seats at the front half of the room, but do not all sit together. Sit by yourself or in groups of two, and spread out throughout the room. This will help reinforce the impression of broad consensus.
- Make your voices heard by asking good questions. When the MoC opens the floor for questions, everyone in the group should put their hands up and keep them there. Look friendly or neutral so that staffers will call on you. When you’re asking a question, remember the following guidelines:
Stick with the prepared list of questions. Don’t be afraid to read it straight from the printout if you need to.
Be polite but persistent, and demand real answers. MoCs are very good at deflecting or dodging questions they don’t want to answer. If the MoC dodges, ask a follow-up question. If they aren’t giving you real answers, then call them out for it. Other group members around the room should amplify by either booing the MoC or applauding you.
Don’t give up the mic until you’re satisfied with the answer. If you’ve asked a hostile question, a staffer will often try to limit your ability to follow up by taking the microphone back immediately after you finish speaking. They can’t do that if you keep a firm hold on the mic. No staffer in their right mind wants to look like they’re physically intimidating a constituent, so they will back off. If they object, then say politely but loudly: “I’m not finished. The MoC is dodging my question. Why are you trying to stop me from following up?”
Keep the pressure on. After one member of the group finishes, everyone should raise their hands again. The next member of the group to be called on should move down the list of questions and ask the next one.
- Support the group and reinforce the message. After one member of your group asks a question, everyone should applaud to show that the feeling is shared throughout the audience. Whenever someone from your group gets the mic, they should note that they’re building on the previous questions — amplifying the fact that you’re part of a broad group.
- Record everything! Assign someone in the group to use their smart phone or video camera to record other advocates asking questions and the MoC’s response. While written transcripts are nice, unfavorable exchanges caught on video can be devastating for MoCs. These clips can be shared through social media and picked up by local and national media. Please familiarize yourself with your state and local laws that govern recording, along with any applicable Senate or House rules, prior to recording. These laws and rules vary substantially from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
After the Town Hall
- Reach out to media, during and after the town hall. If there’s media at the town hall, the people who asked questions should approach them afterward and offer to speak about their concerns. When the event is over, you should engage local reporters on Twitter or by email and offer to provide an in-person account of what happened, as well as the video footage you collected. Example Twitter outreach:
“.@reporter I was at Rep. Smith’s town hall in Springfield today. Large group asked about Medicare privatization. I have video & happy to chat.”
Note: It’s important to make this a public tweet by including the period before the journalist’s Twitter handle. Making this public will make the journalist more likely to respond to ensure they get the intel first.
Ensure that the members of your group who are directly affected by specific threats are the ones whose voices are elevated when you reach out to media.
- Share everything. Post pictures, video, your own thoughts about the event, etc., to social media afterward. Tag the MoC’s office and encourage others to share widely.
OTHER LOCAL PUBLIC EVENTS
In addition to town halls, MoCs regularly attend public events for other purposes — parades, infrastructure groundbreakings, etc. Like town halls, these are opportunities to get face time with the MoCs and make sure they’re hearing about your concerns, while simultaneously changing the news story that gets written.
Similar to town halls, but with some tweaks. To take advantage of this opportunity, you can follow most of the guidelines above for town halls (filming, etc.). However, because these events are not designed for constituent input, you will need to think creatively about how to make sure your presence and message come through loud and clear.
Tactics for these events may be similar to more traditional protests, where you’re trying to shift attention from the scheduled event to your own message.
- Optimize visibility. Unlike in town halls, you want your presence as a group to be recognizable and attention-getting at this event. It may make sense to stick together as a group, wear relatively similar clothing / message shirts, and carry signs in order to be sure that your presence is noticeable.
- Be prepared to interrupt and insist on your right to be heard. Since you won’t get the mic at an event like this, you have to attract attention to yourself and your message. Agree beforehand with your group on a simple message focused on a current or upcoming issue. Coordinate with each other to chant this message during any public remarks that your MoC makes. This can be difficult and a bit uncomfortable. But it sends a powerful message to your MoC that they won’t be able to get press for other events until they address your concerns.
- Identify, and try to speak with, reporters on the scene. Be polite and friendly, and stick to your message. For example, “We’re here to remind Congresswoman Sara that her constituents are opposed to Medicare cuts.” You may want to research in advance which local reporters cover MoCs or relevant beats, so that you know who to look for.
- Hold organizational hosts accountable. Often these events will be hosted by local businesses or nonpartisan organizations — groups that don’t want controversy or to alienate the community. Reach out to them directly to express your concern that they are giving a platform to pro-Trump authoritarianism, racism, and corruption. If they persist, use social media to express your disappointment. This will reduce the likelihood that these organizations will host the Trump-friendly MoC in the future. MoCs depend on invitations like these to build ties and raise their visibility — so this matters to them.
DISTRICT OFFICE VISITS
Every MoC has at least one district office, and many MoCs have several spread through their district or state. These are public offices, open for anybody to visit — you don’t need an appointment. You can take advantage of this to stage an impromptu town hall meeting by showing up with a small group. It is much harder for district or DC staff to turn away a group than a single constituent, even without an appointment.
- Find out where your MoCs' local offices are. The official webpage for your MoC will list the address of every local office. You can find those webpages easily through a simple Google search. In most cases, the URL for a House member will be www.[lastname].house.gov, and the URL for Senate offices is www.[lastname].senate.gov.
- Plan a trip when the MoC is there. Most MoC district offices are open only during regular business hours, 9am-5pm. While MoCs spend a fair amount of time in Washington, they are often “in district” on Mondays and Fridays, and there are weeks designated for MoCs to work in district. The MoC is most likely to be at the “main” office — the office in the largest city in the district, and where the MoC’s district director works. Ideally, plan a time when you and several other people can show up together.
- Prepare several questions ahead of time. As with the town halls, you should prepare a list of questions ahead of time.
- Politely, but firmly, ask to meet with the MoC directly. Staff will ask you to leave or at best “offer to take down your concerns.” Don’t settle for that. You want to speak with the MoC directly. If they are not in, ask when they will next be in. If the staffer doesn’t know, tell them you will wait until they find out. Sit politely in the lobby. Note, on any given weekend, the MoC may or may not actually come to that district office.
- Note that office sit-ins can backfire, so be very thoughtful about the optics of your visit. This tactic works best when you are protesting an issue that directly affects you and/or members of your group (e.g., seniors and caregivers on Medicare cuts, or Muslims and allies protesting a Muslim registry). Being polite and respectful throughout is critical.
- Meet with the staffer. Even if you are able to get a one-off meeting with the MoC, you are most often going to be meeting with their staff. In district, the best person to meet with is the district director, or the head of the local district office you’re visiting. There are real advantages to building a relationship with these staff. In some cases, they may be more open to progressive ideas than the MoC, and having a good meeting with/building a relationship with a supportive staff member can be a good way to move your issue up the chain of command. Follow these steps for a good staff meeting:
Have a specific “ask” — e.g., vote against X, cosponsor Y, publicly state Z, etc.
Leave staff with a brief write-up of your issue, with your ask clearly stated.
Share a personal story of how you or someone in your group is personally impacted by the specific issue (health care, immigration, Medicare, etc.).
Be polite — yelling at the underpaid, overworked staffer won’t help your cause.
Be persistent — get their business card and call/email them regularly; ask if the MoC has taken action on the issue.
- Advertise what you’re doing. Communicate on social media, and tell the local reporters you follow what is happening. Take and send pictures and videos with your group: “At Congresswoman Sara’s office with 10 other constituents to talk to her about privatizing Medicare. She refuses to meet with us and staff won’t tell us when she will come out. We’re waiting.”
Mass office calling is a light lift, but it can actually have an impact. Tea Partiers regularly flooded congressional offices with calls at opportune moments, and MoCs noticed.
- Find the phone numbers for your MoCs. You can find your local MoCs and their office phone numbers at www.callmycongress.com.
- Prepare a single question per call. For in-person events, you want to prepare a host of questions, but for calls, keep it simple. You and your group should all agree to call in on one specific issue that day. The question should be about a live issue — e.g., a vote that is coming up, a chance to take a stand, or some other time-sensitive opportunity. The next day or week, pick another issue, and call again on that.
- Find out who you’re talking to. In general, the staffer who answers the phone will be an intern, a staff assistant, or some other very junior staffer in the MoC's office. But you want to talk to the legislative staffer who covers the issue you’re calling about. There are two ways to do this:
Ask to speak to the staffer who handles the issue (immigration, health care, etc.). Junior staff are usually directed to not tell you who this is, and instead just take down your comment.
On a different day, call and ask whoever answers the phone, “Hi, can you confirm the name of the staffer who covers [immigration/health care/etc.]?” Staff will generally tell you the name. Say “Thanks!” and hang up. Ask for the staffer by name when you call back next time.
- If you’re directed to voicemail, follow up with email. Then follow up again. Getting more-senior legislative staff on the phone is tough. The junior staffer will probably just tell you “I checked, and she’s not at her desk right now, but would you like to leave a voicemail?” Go ahead and leave a voicemail, but don’t expect a call back. Instead, after you leave that voicemail, follow up with an email to the staffer. If they still don’t respond, follow up again. If they still don’t respond, let the world know that the MoC’s office is dodging you.
Congressional email addresses are standardized, so even if the MoC’s office won't give you an email address, you can probably guess it if you have the staffer’s first and last name.
Senate email addresses: For the Senate, the formula is: StafferFirstName_StafferLastName@MoCLastName.senate.gov. For example, if Jane Doe works for Senator Roberts, her email address is likely “Jane_Doe@roberts.senate.gov”
House email addresses: For the House, the formula is simpler: StafferFirstName.StafferLastName@mail.house.gov. For example, if Jane Doe works in the House, her email address is likely “Jane.Doe@mail.house.gov”
- Keep a record of the conversation. Take detailed notes on everything the staffer tells you. Direct quotes are great, and anything they tell you is public information that can be shared widely. Compare notes with the rest of your group, and identify any conflicts in what they’re telling constituents.
- Report back to media and your group. Report back to both your media contacts and your group what the staffer said when you called.
SAMPLE CALL DIALOGUE
Staffer: Congresswoman Sara’s office, how can I help you?
Caller: Hi there, I’m a constituent of Congresswoman Sara’s. Can I please speak with the staffer who handles presidential appointments issues?
Staffer: I’m happy to take down any comments you may have. Can I ask for your name and address to verify you’re in the Congresswoman’s district?
Caller: Sure thing. [Gives name/address]. Can I ask who I’m speaking with?
Staffer: Yes, this is Jeremy Smith.
Caller: Thanks, Jeremy! I’m calling to ask what the Congresswoman is doing about the appointment of Steve Bannon to serve in the White House. Bannon is reported as saying he didn’t want his children to go to a school with Jews. And he ran a website that promoted white nationalist views. I’m honestly scared that a known racist and anti-Semite will be working just feet from the Oval Office. Can you tell me what Congresswoman Sara is going to do about it?
Staffer: Well I really appreciate you calling and sharing your thoughts! I of course can’t speak for the Congresswoman because I’m just a staff assistant, but I can tell you that I’ll pass your concerns on to her.
Caller: I appreciate that Jeremy, but I don’t want you to just pass my concerns on. I would like to know what the Congresswoman is doing to stop this. [If they stick with the “I’m just a staffer” line, ask them when a more senior staffer will get back to you with an answer to your question.]
Staffer: I’m afraid we don’t take positions on personnel appointments.
Caller: Why not?
Staffer: Personnel appointments are the President’s responsibility. We have no control over them.
Caller: But Congresswoman Sara has the ability to speak out and say that this is unacceptable. Other members of Congress have done so. Why isn’t Congresswoman Sara doing that?
Staffer: As I said, this is the President’s responsibility. It’s not our business to have a position on who he chooses for his staff.
Caller: It is everyone’s business if a man who promoted white supremacy is serving as an advisor to the President. The Congresswoman is my elected representative, and I expect her to speak out on this.
Staffer: I’ll pass that on.
Caller: I find it unacceptable that the Congresswoman refuses to take a position. I’ll be notifying my friends, family, and local newspaper that our Congresswoman doesn’t think it’s her job to represent us or actually respond to her constituents’ concerns.