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Disrupt Town Halls and Fundraisers: An Expert Bird-Dogger’s Guide to Pressuring the Senate

Every fundraising event for an elected official is a great opportunity for bird-dogging them, says Jennifer Lynn.

Demonstrators participate in a health care rally in Philadelphia that Jennifer Flynn organized in January when Trump and the congressional Republicans were in town. (Photo: Sarah Jaffe)

Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing “Interviews for Resistance” series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn’t, what has changed and what is still the same. Today’s interview is the 38th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Today we bring you a conversation with Jennifer Flynn, who works with the Center for Popular Democracy.

Sarah Jaffe: You have been working on planning for and protesting against all sorts of potential horrors coming from the Republicans in terms of health care policy since the beginning of the Trump administration. Right?

Jennifer Flynn: Yes, absolutely. Right after the election the group of grassroots organizing groups got back together under the umbrella of Health Care for America Now and they reconstituted this amazing coalition that brought together the DC Beltway policy people, the think tanks, the media-savvy groups, the large email groups with the groups that are comprised of the people who will be most directly impacted by these cuts: low-income people around the country who are organized fighting for jobs, fighting for health care, and working on many different issues. That is actually the coalition that is largely credited for leading the fight that actually won Obamacare.

It is kind of important to remember how that process went down in the first place. Talk a little bit about the work that you were doing back when — not that many years ago — Obamacare was actually pushed through.

I did not have the privilege of working directly with Healthcare for America Now [HCAN]; I did work with grassroots organizing groups. Primarily, I was working with organizations that were led by people with AIDS who cared very deeply about passing the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Certainly, we were working alongside HCAN.

But Healthcare for America Now is [comprised] of mostly old chapters of ACORN, the amazing, pioneering, grassroots organizing group that actually was taken down by Breitbart Media, Steve Bannon — people who are very much in power now. Many of those groups went and reconstituted themselves and their members and just formed another organization. So, some of those organisations are still around today under a different name, different leadership, and still fighting under this umbrella organization of Healthcare for America Now.

When Trump was elected, health care was one of the first things that went through a lot of people’s minds, since the Republican Congress had pledged to overturn Obamacare.

Definitely. Some people actually believed that Trump might win. People had already started talking about how vulnerable the Affordable Care Act was. The House had voted 60 times to undo it unsuccessfully. We knew that this was coming and something that he said he would do on Day One. We also knew that if we could slow down this fight and if we could build a resistance based on this fight, that would only help every other issue that is part of the Trump agenda.

A lot of other groups that are part of the Center for Popular Democracy network are also new immigrant groups. So, we knew there would be these very targeted attacks on immigrant communities. We really saw this as one fight together, that if we could slow down on health care, that would actually help immigrants, help stop some of the more horrendous policies. I still think that is true. It is hard to believe, but we would actually see policies that were much worse.

A couple of days after the election, a colleague of mine from the AIDS world — we actually worked together in an organization that came out of an effort of bird-dogging, of following around elected officials back in the late 1990s…. We worked together in this organization that was really known for bird-dogging, particularly during the presidential [elections], when [candidates] would go around to Iowa and New Hampshire. So, we had done that work all along. We had been on the campaign trail following Trump so we actually could witness first-hand how popular he was in certain parts of the country.

My colleague sent out an email just on two listservs. These … listservs that sprung up the night of the election where thousands of people joined immediately because we were all so desperate for something to do in a community, to commiserate with. He said, “I don’t really know what to do in this time.” My colleague, by the way, is named Paul Davis. He now works at Housing Works. He said, “I don’t really know what to do at this time, but the one thing I have done in the past that was very effective under previous Republican administrations, particularly under the Bush Jr. administration, is that we would do this very targeted bird-dogging campaign where we would not let any elected official off the hook and just repeatedly ask them questions and through our question-asking move them, get that different answer each time. We are actually moving them from being strongly opposed to our view to being closer to our side.” He said, “So, if you can get 15 people and a space, I will come out and do a training.”

Within three days, he had [trainings in] 32 cities scheduled. Someone on the list forwarded it to a bunch of other people, went on a bunch of other lists, people found 15 friends and they rented a space or a library available, and he was suddenly inundated with these requests. [He, his colleague and I] went to Housing Works and said, “Hey, I think this is going to turn into something.” They actually ended up hiring him. So, the three of us have been going around, the same principle: we will train anybody who has got 15 people in a space. We have trained over a thousand people. We are continuing those trainings.

Then, we organize people on the listserv to go and do actions and to move electeds through a series of questions. We help people draft the questions. We help people think about, “Well, what if the town hall has 200 people in it and you really can’t get called on?” or “What if they are not calling on people and they are just using these tele-town halls or they are just using questions that were written ahead of time?” We brainstorm with all the people that we train on creative ways to hack into [the] new style of “non-town halls” as I like to call them. In the first recess, over a hundred thousand distinct people — and that is just what we could count — had taken action, direct action, with their Congress members. So, really, an unprecedented amount of activity. Obviously, this is largely because of Indivisible and MoveOn and Swing Left and Action Together; some of the groups that popped up after the election who have really been focusing on bringing this message to their Congress members.

I think it is just going to continue. I think it is actually going to become a better tactic as fewer people go to town halls, because it is one of the few times when you are directly able to ask someone who can turn on or off the lights on your issue. Who has the power, their finger on the button to do something about it. You could actually hold them accountable and have them explain why they are voting the wrong way or they are supporting something. It is a very important tactic for the Senate recess, which is coming up, and the House is, obviously, in recess until May 15, and the Senate will be in recess for Memorial Day. So, it is a very important tactic to use as we head into the Senate vote, which we expect to happen in June.

(Photo: Sarah Jaffe)(Photo: Sarah Jaffe)

In terms of seeing this work, obviously for various reasons, people have said that this bill faces higher obstacles in the Senate, but I am thinking about “What are some easy lessons people can take from the successes that people have had so far in these town halls, the successful halting of the bill the first time around?” What kinds of things have you learned just since this process has begun?

I think that something that is important to remember is this is going to be relentless. So, beating it back, slowing it down in the Senate this go-round — which I think we are absolutely capable of doing — doesn’t mean we get through this recess and then it is over and we have won. They are going to keep trying to do this at every turn. We actually have to think about ways that this can build our movement. And the administration, as we saw with the House, will use every single tool that they have in their toolbox to pressure the Senators and to pressure the House when they have to vote again, to vote the way that they want, to vote for the terrible AHCA in whatever form.

By the way, we believe that, yes, we can win something on the Senate side. We think that we can probably do away with the Medicaid block grant, but we don’t think that we will be able to do away with the Medicaid per capita caps, which is a structural reform to Medicaid and does actually shift it from being an entitlement to being something that a state chooses. That actually is devastating to the Medicaid program. We think of it as this thing that is there for us when, God forbid, something happens to us and we get sick and we need Medicaid, right? And it is just no longer being taken for granted if that happens, that it will be there for us. In many states, it won’t be there. You even hear a Congressmember saying, “Well, just move to another state.”

Right now, the House covers 1 percent of pre-existing conditions. Some of them are very funny; like, a c-section is not covered, but a vasectomy is. That is not a pre-existing condition where you won’t get health insurance. But, we think that we can win back some of these, but we will have 10 percent, maybe at most, of pre-existing conditions covered and will still be a loss of health care for [many]…. The CBO [Congressional Budget Office] score, which should come out sometime next week [will reveal] just how many Americans would lose health insurance under the plan that passed the House, which is probably more than 24 million. But, it will still be devastating to many people in the country.

… senators have got a couple of years in office. So, we need to prove to them that we have got a long memory and that this will impact their jobs.

I think that a thing to learn is just that we have to be relentless and we have to actually really move senators over to our side. It can’t just be something that is temporary. They have to feel that we are going to remember this when we go to elect the new House in 2018 and that we are going to remember it beyond that. Because remember, senators have got a couple of years in office. So, we need to prove to them that we have got a long memory and that this will impact their jobs. So, when Trump says — as he did to Representative Frelinghuysen in New Jersey — “I will take away your chairmanship of Ways and Means,” obviously, that means a loss of money for him. It means the loss of a nice office for him. A loss of a lot of staff for him. A loss of prestige. A loss of power. We need to be able to say, “Forget about your chairmanship, we are going to take away your whole job.” Somehow we have to send the message that is true, so we have to start thinking that way. We have to start really organizing ourselves that way. I think that the 2018 election is actually incredibly crucial to prove that this will have an impact.

In the Senate, in particular, are there any targets that are up for re-election in the next election cycle who might be vulnerable to pressure because they might actually lose an election?

Yes, I think there are Senators who are also vulnerable because they are somewhat on the fence. There is Susan Collins, who sometimes votes differently or thinks differently. There is Murkowski, there is Heller, Capito, Flake, Cassidy, Portman…. Then there are some Senators who are just sort of surprising and do different things like Cotton or Boozman. Our job is to try to make it so that whatever compromise is created, we shine a light on all the deficits, because it will have all of the deficits. It just may cover them up a little bit.

Indivisible wrote this amazing guide and they have created an amazing infrastructure…. I have trained a lot of people who get their direction from the Indivisible Guide. They put this one thing in where they said, “By all means, always be from the district, because otherwise you will be criticized as you’re bussed in.” I just want to say, that I think slowed us down a lot. People were very reluctant to drive 10 miles to another person’s district and question and go to the office of that Congressmember. There were thousands of people in South Orange, New Jersey, who wanted to go to Frelinghuysen’s office, but he is two miles away in a different district.

It took a while for people to recognize … [that] there are some Congressmembers who are more powerful than others. Representative MacArthur represents 700,000 people and his actions took away health care for 24 million people around the country. It is absolutely fine to go to another district. It is absolutely fine to go and meet with someone who has the ability to make a life-and-death decision for you and explain why you disagree with them. I just really encourage us all, and obviously it’s easier for the Senate because our senators represent the whole state, but in New York we know Schumer is … not going to cave, hopefully. But, we can go to New Jersey. We can go to Ohio. We can pressure Portman. We can go to Pennsylvania. I don’t know that we will have any impact on Toomey, but we can travel and we can talk to other members. We can go to Maine and spend a week there and talk to Collins about why she should stand strong.

I wanted to ask a couple of questions about bird-dogging. As we have seen, Congress members are less likely now to hold any sort of public town hall, but their schedules are often public, or at least parts of their schedules are often public, as we saw this week in New York when everybody showed up to see Paul Ryan outside of Harlem Success Academy. Do you have any advice for people who find out where their Congressperson is going to be?

In this organization that I used to work for, which I will give a shout out to, HealthGAP … we saw every opportunity as a bird-dogging effort. Town halls are just one small part of it. The best ones are actually fundraisers. Those are actually fairly easy to find out about, especially if you live in the district. The person at the hardware store might say, “I am having a house party for so-and-so.”

It is terrible that people run for office almost the day after they are elected into office. It is also great for bird-dogging because they are almost constantly fundraising. If you find out in the local paper that there is a fundraiser, go to it. I have this funny story of some students who went to a fundraiser. It was one of these house parties where people are standing around with wine and there is some cheese. Then, the candidate comes in or the elected official comes in, gives a speech, and then there are really no questions because it sort of feels like everybody knows everybody. He will just come around and shake hands and say, “Thank you” and leave.

So, they went and he is giving a stump speech. Then, one of the students just raised her hand. He said, “Oh, I am not going to take questions. I will come around and talk to each one of you individually. I really want to get to know you,” because everyone in the room is supposed to be a donor. Then, she just stood there and kept her hand raised. Then, her friends just raised their hands. So, there are three people who know no one at this house party and the host comes over and says, “I am sorry. He is not taking questions. Put your hands down.” They just stared straight at them and kept their hands raised. A murmur is going through the room. Finally, he feels uncomfortable and these are donors, so he says, “I guess I will take some questions.”

It is not impolite to ask a question. I did hear that a reporter got arrested for asking a question too loudly of Price. But, up until then, I have never heard of anyone getting arrested for asking a question. It is the cornerstone of democracy. They are our elected officials, or they are trying to get into office — you have every right to ask them questions and those questions can be strident. You can ask them why they took away health care for 24 million people. You can ask them how they expect to vote on Medicaid. Do they intend to preserve it as an entitlement? Do it at every juncture.

Obviously, it is harder when there are these kinds of protests. Although, they also serve a purpose. There are so many people coming, you can’t necessarily get in a question. But, one thing that they did yesterday at the Paul Ryan event was they had almost a thousand people outside … and then they had a smaller group that stood by the doors ready to shake hands and ask a question. That is a really smart way to get direct questions to elected officials in this moment. It doesn’t always mean that is always successful, but I think it is OK, because I think that the media that was generated yesterday at the Paul Ryan Success Academy protest really sent him a message that people are unhappy about the health care bill and, frankly, about his support of charter schools.

Any more advice for people who want to be doing this?

In our training there are two things that we prioritize. One, question-writing. We encourage people who can to write it down. One, because the process of writing it down helps embed it into your memory. Two, because it is always nerve-wracking. I would rather talk to 500 people in a room, in front of 500 people, than to talk to one elected official who maybe seems like he can outsmart me.

The other thing is, we encourage people not to ask questions on the technical details. You don’t need to know what per capita caps are or what health savings accounts are. You don’t need to explain that. Just ask the basic questions. Will your plan increase the number of people who will have access to health insurance? Will your plan keep Medicaid as an entitlement? All of those things are fine to ask in the most basic sense. Tell a personal story.

The other very magical thing is to raise your hand — if they do take questions — first, fast and high. There is something in the human DNA where we have to call on people when they raise their hand first. It is not jumping out of your seat, because that scares people. It is just putting your hand up very confidently. It is actually really, really hard to do because you are all prepared, you are nervous, you got in, you sat down, you wrote your question down, you met with the team, you are sitting in different locations so they can’t say, “The right side of the room are all the crazy left-wingers” or whatever. You just want another 30 seconds to get it together, so you don’t want to raise your hand first, but that is the key to getting a question in. It is to just raise your hand and then take the five-second breath before you ask it.

Any last thoughts for what people can do or where they can connect up with groups that are doing this work around health care?

If anybody wants to be trained in bird-dogging and get connected to a national effort to go out and bird-dog other candidates, they certainly can contact me or Paul Davis or Jaron Benjamin who are at Housing Works. My email is [email protected]. If you got 15 people in a space, we will come out. Of course, you can get lots of information at Town Hall Project about where there are events.

If your elected doesn’t do a town hall, then make one yourself. Get the library community room and make a flyer, make a Facebook event and invite a bunch of people. Send a letter to your elected saying that you are going to hold a town hall and they better show up. Now, you can actually get the closest, more progressive Congressmember to do the Adopt-a-District, and they might hold a town hall in lieu of the Congressmember who won’t, which is a great way to get media attention. You can have an empty suit or a picture of the Congressmember who won’t show up. Then, you just hold a town hall. Ask the questions just as you want and just let the violence sit there with their non-response, which is a really powerful thing. Then, of course, Facebook Live it, put it up on the internet.

Indivisible sends out an email every week with updates. Of course, get connected to MoveOn and Resistance Near Me. The hardest thing used to be finding places where elected were; now the hardest thing is just to show up.

I think it will help build a movement and get us to the summer if we can really delay the vote in the senate in June. If you were getting burned out, but you have it in you to continue doing a high level of action, please do so to delay the health care bill past June. They will break for the summer. We will buy ourselves some time. Then, there are actually some technical things that reset the process a little bit. We have even bought ourselves some more time if we can just get through the summer. Now is not the time to slow down. Now is the time to ramp it up. That is not to say that is not going to be a marathon. It is definitely going to be a marathon, but this is a key time to try to save health care for 24 million people.

Other than emailing you, can people keep up with you on social media, as well?

Yes, sure. On Twitter I am @JenniferFlynn and my Facebook is Jennifer Flynn Walker.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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