THE BUZZ: People Power

By on February 7, 2017

Locals are working to shift lawmakers’ decisions in Cheyenne and Washington.

(Photo: Beth McIntosh)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Until a couple weeks ago, Wilson resident Beth McIntosh didn’t know that Republican Sen. Mike Enzi has an office in Jackson above Picnic. Now, the local musician has already arranged and attended a meeting with staffers there and plans to organize more.

McIntosh, who has lived in the valley for 34 years, is not alone. In the last few weeks, Enzi field representative Nikki Brunner reported a deluge of calls, emails, and visits. An Enzi staff member told McIntosh the senator’s office received 183 calls in one hour, a sharp increase from the typical 500 to 1,000 weekly phone calls that Enzi’s press secretary Max D’Onofrio says the office is used to seeing.

These efforts are not in vain, particularly in a state where lawmakers have sown a tradition of making themselves accessible to their constituents. D’Onofrio guarantees that Enzi sees every single piece of feedback.

Armed with knowledge, McIntosh hopes community members can normalize political participation. “It’s like muscle memory … direct action should be a part of being a citizen. We can develop these skills, begin dropping by the senator’s office like we drop by the library.”

Experts from across the state, from professional lobbyists to Congressional staff members, agree with McIntosh’s tactic; more than anything else they advise showing up. Emailing is good, calling is better, but physical presence is by far the best.

Jason Baldes, executive director of the Wind River Advocacy Center, said that in 2014 after years of bills that threatened the Native population, they decided to have a more sustained presence in the legislature. Since installing several lobbyists during the legislative session, they’ve noticed a marked improvement in bills related to the rights of those on the reservation.

Those who can’t camp out in Cheyenne will have to find other ways to ensure accountability. Skye Schell is the civic engagement director at the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and a co-founder of Shelter JH, a housing advocacy group. He says organizers will have to start getting creative: “Calling, emailing, attending meetings, those are all in the framework of what is expected. They’re important but not enough. Organizers should look for ideas that are inside the comfort zones of their participants, but outside the comfort zones of their representatives.”

In June 2016, Schell helped organize a historic event to bring attention to those struggling to find affordable housing. About 100 community members marched through town and into a town council meeting to share stories about how the housing crisis had impacted their lives. People who had never attended a meeting were there, taking up every seat, while others sat on the floor, the windowsills and spilled into the lobby. “It was a community owned space,” Schell explained. “It flipped the power dynamic that said that it’s the people who have to come to meetings. It was a community-held meeting that electeds came to.”

The public’s will

From demonstrations to calling lawmakers, people have been engaging across the country since the election, and their engagement has effected change. There are several examples of representatives changing votes or withdrawing bills after being flooded by emails, voicemails and office visits.

After facing massive public opposition, Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz-R, withdrew a bill that would have sold 3.3 million acres of federal public land throughout 10 states. After withdrawing the bill, he posted a photo of himself on social media bedecked in hunting gear, explaining that he too loved public lands and that he heard the people’s voice.

Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of Colorado’s Center for Western Priorities, told PJH the withdrawal signals the power the public wields. “It demonstrates that speaking up can influence public policy. It’s worth noting that public outcry works. We’re going to continue seeing bills to dispose of public lands … and that would erase tribal protections that tribes have been fighting for the better part of the century. These will be the next big fights.”   

In Wyoming, public lands advocates also celebrated when Senate President Eli Bebout killed a public lands transfer constitutional amendment. “I am not sure we would have had the votes to get the constitutional amendment through,” Bebout told The Planet on the heels of his decision.

Jeff Muratore, of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, is among the advocates engaged in the battle to protect public lands from falling into the hands of state control. He pointed to the diverse groups of people who united against the amendment as part of the reason for Bebout’s decision. “It is heartening to see folks from every walk of life—Democrats, Republicans, sportsmen, fishermen, outdoor enthusiasts—all coming together in the name of public lands,” he told PJH in January.

Then there was the recent Wyoming Government Anti-Discrimination Act, a misleading title for a bill that wouldn’t protect LGBTQ people, but instead government workers who discriminate against them. People like Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue a marriage license for a same-sex couple. In Wyoming, Davis would be protected under the proposed legislation if she cited religious reasons for refusing the LGBTQ couple.

But lawmakers failed to convince enough people of the bill’s merit, PJH reported in January. Instead, a flurry of intense opposition from folks across the state ensued, said Sabrina King, policy director for the Wyoming ACLU. King says that resistance swayed lawmakers to withdraw the bill. “People were upset, and vocal … you saw that from all corners—not only the LGBTQ community but also faith leaders, business owners and many organizations,” King recently told PJH. “I think it is really telling and hopefully a lesson learned for lawmakers.”

‘They’re paid to represent you’

One resident who cares deeply about public lands has been calling every office of every Wyoming representative several times a week. “It seems excessive now, but … the majority of legislation gets passed during the first 100 days,” explained Hans Flinch, a landscape architect.

Flinch says he receives responses, though they often lack clear messages. But it’s much harder to be non-committal in person, he said. Therefore, he hopes to see representatives hold town hall meetings during their recess, to go on record “face-to-face about how they will vote on certain issues.” For example, Republicans may adopt a national party line that supports oil drilling in parks. If these bills arise, Flinch wants a guarantee that representatives will diverge from their party to protect Wyoming’s best interests. “Your representative or senator is paid to represent you. It doesn’t matter if they are a Republican or Democrat, it is their job to make sure they are hearing your voice and taking it into consideration.”

Looking to one of the most conservative groups in the country for cues on potent engagement is something Flinch recommends. “During the first four years of Obama, the Tea Party showed up at offices and events and demanded answers in person. These are tactics that shouldn’t be ruled out … they are very effective.”

McIntosh imagines a community “fire line” of participation centered on Enzi’s office. Each week, one person would take two friends there to speak about issues important to them. The next week, each of those friends would invite two more, and so on. Though each person would only have to go to the office twice, participation would grow exponentially, and significance would be enormous. “In Wyoming, you have a much greater relative impact as a citizen,” she said.

In light of historic political participation, organizers have incredible opportunity. Schell noted that normally, “the danger with organizing is having enough energy and momentum.” That is not an issue now. Instead, the challenge is delineating goals and strategies. He hopes to see residents organizing with local groups that protect those who may be at risk under new national policies, for example the immigrant population in town. “Will local law enforcement withhold participation from federal agencies carrying out immigration policies not in line with American values?” he asked.

Schell urges organizers to think beyond calls and emails, to ask themselves how to take advantage of massive energy to make the greatest impact. He says people should ask themselves what they can do to challenge their representatives, to make them uncomfortable.

It’s time, Schell said, to demand a rearranging of the framework rather than continued operation within the old one. PJH

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