There's a better way to reach politicians than to call the zit-faced interns at their office

There's a better way to reach politicians than to call the zit-faced interns at their office

PoliticsJanuary 26, 2017 By Isabelle Kohn

Coordinated disruption and strategic low blows.

Those are the very undiplomatic solutions to the issue of making real political change that Congressman Steve Israel (D-NY) puts forth in a new video called "A Congressman Tells You How to Make His Life Hell."

... Make your Congressman's life hell? Whoa now, Nancy, that's a pretty stark contrast to the dignified system of phone-calling and letter writing so many institutions like Planned Parenthood, The ACLU and the Sierra Club have urged their supporters to do in the wake of President Trump's recent decrees. But ... it's also becoming necessary.

"Phone calls are interesting," he says. "Letter writing is interesting. But there is nothing more valuable, or more spontaneous, than showing up at an event that a member of Congress is at and asking them, 'Why did you vote a certain way?' 'What's your position on a certain issue?'"

In other words, get in their face a little. Respectfully of course, but in person, and with the goal of conveying your concern more directly than you could through a phone call to a zit-faced, barely 21-year-old legislative assistant.

And why does Israel suggest this more confrontational method instead? Because, he says, when you call an elected official in their Washington office, a hired-hand answers the phone or reads your email. An intern; an office coordinator. Whatever you say on that phone call or in that email is then recorded and compiled into a report that the official sees at some point. It's a general summary of questions, comments and concerns.

However, "To think that you're really going to be able to persuade a member of Congress based on that phone call or that letter, I think falls short," Isreal says.

So, what actually works? Members of Congress going to ordinarily sedate town hall meetings and raising hell. That's exactly what Israel says Congressmen started doing In 2010, after the election of Barack Obama.

"They started screaming, they started yelling," Isreal says. "They were very emotional. What we now know is that those town hall disruptions were organized by the tea party movement. They were organized in order to achieve a goal. And that goal was to win a majority in the House of Representatives. It worked."

And while it was hardly the form of civility one that would suffice in an ideal world, it was effective.

"Sometimes you've gotta play by the playbook with whom you disagree," says Israel.

So, what does that mean for your weekend? How can you, the people, raise hell?

It's simple. Follow the elected officials in your area on social media and try to find out where they'll be that you can also go — public appearances, town hall meetings, press conferences or any other sort of public forum. Go with a huge group they can't ignore. Pack the place and ask them questions. Be visible. It makes them more accountable to you; to see you actually exist.

You can also invite a politician's staffers out to your advocacy group meetings or on "field trips" where you can show them your communities. Often times, these staffers run the ground game for politicians. They report what they see back to their bosses.

However, that's not always feasible. You won't always be able to directly ask your local so-and-so why they voted "yes" on fracking in person.

So, in the meantime, what do you do?

Call and write letters.

Yeah, we know. We just said it's less effective. But at the same time, it's something. Political advocacy and interaction is, and should be, a full time job. Especially in these times. Especially if you want things to be different. And if you can't go with option #1 (raise hell), go with option #2.

Emily Ellsworth, a former staffer for Utah congressmen Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart, tweeted out a list of the most effective tactics to reach your elected officials. Calling and writing their state offices, as opposed to their Washington ones, is a good way to start.

"The most effective thing is to call them on the phone at their state office," she said. "They have to talk to you there."

“People get this idea that their voice doesn’t matter and if you have don’t have money it doesn’t matter,” she continued to CNN. “But you don’t have to have money to get an appointment or meeting with a congressional staffer and that’s just as important as anything else.”

Rosa*, the front-office coordinator at Senator Michael Bennet's (D-CO), actually answers these calls herself. Each day, she records hundreds of them, calls which cover an expansive variety of topics. At the end of the day, like Israel describes in his video, she compiles all this feedback into a report and sends it off for Bennet to read ... which she says he's actually pretty good at.

"He hears about everything," she tells me.

Even criticism?

"Even criticism. As an elected official, it's Senator Bennet's job to take into consideration the diversity of voices his constituency has, and to represent their needs," Rosa says. "He will take into consideration negative feedback in the same way he'll consider positive feedback."

And if he doesn't like what he hears, or disagrees with it?

"Often times, he has made changes based on opposition," she tells me.

I ask if there's a better way to reach him.

"No," she tells me. "I really think calling is the most effective way to reach someone in your government."

So, which is it? Call and write, or raise hell at town hall?

If you really want to make a change, do both. Do it all. There's not a "best" way; rather, there's a best program of ways — one that involves staying on top of the multitude of ways you can get involved, like donating, volunteering, generating petition signatures, writing, calling and raising hell.

It all makes a difference.

But, if you get the chance ... do Congressman Israel a solid and call your politician of choice out in person. It screwed with him when he was in office, he says. It can definitely screw with the next guy.