For a time, it looked as if representatives were cowering. In the wake of President Donald Trump's election, some members of Congress seemed as though they were actively avoiding outraged constituents in their districts. A Colorado congressman escaped out a side door of his own public meeting. When Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's phones rang busy for weeks, rumors swirled that he had blocked all calls and faxes to his office.
In Louisiana, Democrats and progressives who tried to reach their representatives after the election — particularly U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Neely Kennedy — initially were frustrated by the runaround they perceived when contacting the senators' offices. When Cassidy hosted a Metairie town hall in February, he was met by a furious overflow crowd ready to do battle in defense of the Affordable Care Act. Kennedy, who took office in January, came under fire for his failure to establish physical offices in the state in the months following his election.
Little by little, however, Louisiana progressives have made some headway in communicating their views to the conservative politicians who (largely) represent the state. For those who have successfully contacted a representative, the key to securing a productive meeting seems to be patience, persistence and the willingness to show up in person — frequently.
Pat Driscoll, a member of the Metairie chapter of the progressive group Indivisible, recently secured an eleventh-hour meeting with Charles Henry, chief of staff to House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-Jefferson). Driscoll and five group members were able to meet with Henry the day before the House was set to vote on the legislation designed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. (The vote later was canceled when it became clear the new law would not pass.)
According to Driscoll, the meeting wasn't easy to schedule. The group appeared multiple times at Scalise's Metairie headquarters, once finding the office deserted and locked during posted office hours. It took calls to the representative's D.C. office, notes posted under the door and a meeting with staffers to arrange the meeting with Henry.
Considering Scalise's vote-gathering role as House Majority Whip, Driscoll says she wasn't expecting to sway the lawmaker's opinion. But she felt a moral duty to share her thoughts on health care, and cited the 2015 upset election of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards as a sign that Scalise may wish to listen to left-leaning constituents.
"At some point, we could give Steve Scalise a run for his money," Driscoll said. "We'd like for him to entertain that possibility. They can't just choose to represent their [existing] voters."
Indivisible also has made inroads with Cassidy's organization. Metairie chapter founder Lara Crigger has helped coordinate a standing appointment with two members of Cassidy's staff, which is held weekly on Tuesdays.
At those meetings, Indivisible members have 45 minutes to enter Cassidy's office two by two to express their views on the week's highlighted issue, such as health care or the environment.
Though Crigger describes the meetings as constructive, it's an ongoing challenge to negotiate the needs of four different groups: the property management company for the building that houses Cassidy's office, Cassidy's office itself, Indivisible members, other activists who may not be familiar with the protocol for the meetings, and the sidewalk demonstrators that sometimes accompany them. Spats over parking have caused tensions to flare between activists and the property management company that protects the interests of the building's other tenants.
Crigger says the system isn't perfect, but she feels it's important to make some concessions in service of the long view.
"In an ideal world, we would all be able to go up, all 40 or 50 of us," Crigger says. "Cassidy would be waiting there behind the desk and you could talk to him directly. But it's not an ideal world. ... We have to work with what they're willing to do."
Other organizers and individuals haven't had as much success as Indivisible members. After hosting a "milk carton" protest that called upon Kennedy to open offices or at least hold a town hall in the state, Step Up Louisiana co-director Maria Harmon says the organization has yet to hear back from the senator's office.
But Harmon isn't discouraged by Kennedy's radio silence. Though so-called direct action (such as demonstrations or protests) failed to compel a response from his office, she said the event succeeded in drawing attention to the mobilization of progressive advocates — and could inspire more left-aligned individuals to run for office in the future.
"The actions we made were, pretty much, a contribution to a collective movement," she said. "Even though there is a strong conservative tone here ... a conservative mindset isn't the only thing that's present in Louisiana."
Local property manager Chris Benz also has been leaning hard on Kennedy's team. In a recording of a phone call he provided to Gambit, he attempted to pin down an opening date for Kennedy's Louisiana offices, which he's been asking about for weeks. The staffer who answered the phone was polite, but too vague for Benz's satisfaction. (A call to Kennedy's office April 3 received a similar response: a non-specific opening date is forecast sometime within the next few weeks, most likely in Lafayette.)
"[Kennedy's staff is] never willing to put anything in writing," Benz wrote in a message. "They have given tons of different information when offices will open. ... It is never clear, and never consistent."
Benz says he plans to keep calling and is creating a petition to pressure Kennedy to host a town hall.
From these citizens' reports, rewards seem most possible when one can speak with congressional staffers in person. There are some obvious problems with this: During business hours, it's difficult for many people to appear at congressional offices, especially if they have to return to the same office multiple times to lock down a meeting. There's also the obstacle of filtering messages through congressional staffers, who generally are polite and receptive but not able to make promises on their office's behalf.
But progressive activists were cheered by the downfall of the new health care bill, a move critics said would imperil millions of Americans' care. Though it's unclear whether progressive mobilization was the defining factor that killed the bill, the massive public outcry was hard to miss and must have registered with lawmakers.
Harmon feels sure progressive pressure helped save the Affordable Care Act. In her view, such wins — even just perceived wins — can help the left stay engaged over the next several years.
"If you don't have the necessary resources to attain power instantly," she said, "you have to have that collective voice."
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