On December 8, 2016, in a clarion call to action, Political Orphan’s founder, Chris Ladd, challenged his readers to begin mobilizing. “Next spring is not the time to figure out how you plan to get engaged in politics,” he warned, urging immediate action “while things are quiet and there are still some competent people in charge”.
I remember exactly where I was when I read those words. A calm descended on me for the first time in a month, and an abiding sense of purpose propelled me to start organizing my friends. Using social media as my platform, within twenty minutes of reading Chris’s article I had founded a grassroots group. At the end of the first day, we had 50 members. By the end of the week, we had 500.
Others in Southwestern Pennsylvania were doing the same thing. Inspired by the Women’s March, groups formed in Pittsburgh’s wealthy southern suburbs and quickly ballooned to several thousand members. Smaller but no less dedicated groups popped up in the more conservative counties of Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional district, and by spring of 2017, leaders of all the various groups were working not only with each other but with LGBTQ, African-American, and labor organizations that had existed long before we were spurred to action.
Like thousands of other groups across the country, we held meetings, wrote postcards, saved our representatives’ phone numbers to speed dial, registered people to vote, made countless phone calls to Members of Congress, subscribed to and supported good journalism, and organized protests. Most of us had always been interested in politics, but not necessarily involved in it at the grassroots level. We were learning that democracy doesn’t begin in Washington, D.C., it begins in our own backyard.
Our tallest order of business was to get our now-disgraced former Congressman, Tim Murphy, to listen to our concerns. He didn’t. Frankly, he didn’t need to. PA-18 went for Trump by 20, and we were one of the most gerrymandered districts in one of the country’s most gerrymandered states. Murphy’s seat was considered so safe that he ran unopposed in the two previous elections.
But we persisted. At weekly protests in front of his office, concerned citizens asked to be heard on issues that affected us all: healthcare, education, jobs, and more. We were ignored.
We organized a town hall and invited the Congressman to come (he didn’t attend), and provided a forum for the nearly 200 attendees to voice their concerns. Speaker after speaker went to the mic, asking questions of the absent Congressman, or telling their personal stories, often in heart-wrenching ways. One young mother, with two infants in tow, told the hushed audience about her struggles with multiple sclerosis, and how the disease was robbing her of her sight. She tearfully begged for the preservation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), on which she depended for health insurance.
Murphy didn’t show up to hear our concerns, but the whole nation would hear us soon.
Not long after the town hall, Murphy’s reprehensible treatment of his staff and his sordid personal details were made public in a court hearing. The anti-abortion Congressman was caught asking one of his married mistresses to get an abortion. (His affairs were Washington’s worst kept secret. The grassroots leaders, as well as his colleagues in Congress, were well aware of his behavior. A judge in Pittsburgh legitimized the rumors by unsealing one of his mistress’s divorce proceedings in which he was named.)
At the urging of his confidante and workout buddy Paul Ryan, he resigned within the week.
PA-18 was left without a Congressman, but one thing we did have was an organized, energized, mobilized grassroots army (thank you Chris Ladd for your prescient advice) that was ready to work for a candidate who would hear our concerns.
Enter Conor Lamb.
Much has been written about Conor’s telegenic looks, stellar background, connections to the community, and caring persona. It’s all true. In an article about the grassroots, it needs to be pointed out that Conor deserves more credit than anyone. He was a tireless candidate who crafted a moderate message that resonated with with the center-right makeup of his district. He hired an incredible staff to help him, and he didn’t take a single vote for granted.
Still, in an election that was ultimately decided by hundreds of votes, he needed the grassroots to show up for him in a big way. So we did all the things you have to do to win an election: knock on doors, make phone calls, host meet and greets, donate money, and create social media buzz and enthusiasm.
It was old-fashioned campaigning, but there are a few things worth noting that helped us succeed:
- The grassroots groups worked together. We shared information, helped each other plan events, came to each other’s canvassing days and phonebanks, and generally combined our efforts to amplify our impact.
2. Crucial to the above was our ability to instantly communicate with each other. In the same article that inspired me to start my grassroots group, Chris advised that social media isn’t necessarily a good place to persuade, but it is an excellent place to organize. The leaders of various groups found ourselves using facebook messenger to keep groups in all four of PA 18’s counties moving in the same direction. This was especially important after potential game-changing events like that horrible day in Parkland.
3. We stayed on message. As interview requests started pouring in from major newspapers and networks, we refused to be baited into talking about things happening in Washington, D.C. We pivoted back to the concerns of Washington, PA, following Conor’s lead of focusing on kitchen-table issues.
4. We didn’t try to pull Conor too far left of the voters in the district. While the more progressive grassroots groups had a harder time biting their tongues at first, all of the groups collectively operated under the realization that we’d rather have some of the pie than none of the pie. One organizer told me that knocking on over 1,000 doors and talking with voters who are Democrat, but not necessarily liberal, made her realize that Conor’s message was the right one for the people he was seeking to represent.
The efforts of countless volunteers paid off. Election night was thrilling, of course, and when the Congressman-elect gave his victory speech at 1am, the unbridled joy in the room was palpable. I’m proud of him, his staff, and all of us on the ground who helped make it happen.
One of my happiest moments, however, came the next morning, after a fitful sleep interrupted by rushes of adrenaline. I logged onto my grassroots site, and one member had already posted a new call to action. Less than 8 hours after a hard-fought and historic victory, the grassroots were already making plans for the next challenge.