Democracy Begins in Your Own Backyard

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:

  1. 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.

16 Comments

  1. What a good, uplifting post. I live in a solid blue area so my interactions with my elected leaders are mainly calls to let them know what really has bothered me that week, plus atta-boys for doing good. But even so, I’ve found a few places to help out, and I am looking for more ways. Not humble-bragging, just reporting in. These little things help me feel better.

    1. I subscribed to my local paper, the WAPO, and the NYT.

    2. I’ve followed the lead of Sleeping Giants and called out local companies who advertise on Breitbart to let them know. I’ve personally received replies from at least 5 different companies, including GM and Group Health, thanking me for letting them know and assuring me they are ceasing their ads.

    3. I marched in the Women’s March and the Science March. For the Science March I made a groovy hat with a lightbulb suspended over my head that actually lights up. Yeah, just a vanity project, but it felt good and people loved my light bulb hat.

    4. I’ve donated to about 5 different candidates not in my area, including Beto O’Rourke, Conor Lamb, and Tammy Baldwin from WI. There are more candidates that are going to get my money.

    5. I got irked about the gross political grandstanding from the National Inquirer which is visible in the checkout lines of my grocery store, so I contacted their national press guy to complain. I got a very nice letter in response and a promise that he’ll check it out. Lately I haven’t seen the political covers on NE, and if I see that Saudi magazine I will bitch.

    6. I am renewing my vow to vote in every election, even for dog catcher.

    I know it’s not that much, but there are definitely things I can do right here. I am hoping people will suggest more things like this. It’s part of the enthusiasm groundswell that we can all participate in.

    Following this blog is another way I try to stay involved. It’s confusing to me that I get a warm, happy feeling when I read posts from people who used to be my political opponents, like Chris, Evan McMullin, Rick Wilson, etc. Now I see their true patriotism and how terrible this GOP move towards fascism really is.

    Thanks to Mary G for holding down the fort so well. This place is important to me.

    1. I was struck by the overall positive tone of Marcie’s blog entry. Aside from the necessary mention of Tim Murphy’s lack of response, her post was free of snark and negativity, which is certainly refreshing these days. This may be the key to your success — catch the opposition off guard with your optimism. Our society desperately needs an influx of positive energy.

      1. Tutt,

        Thank you for that feedback. Since the beginning, I’ve tried to make this experience fun and positive, lest we lose our humanity in the process. For instance, as much as I can I try to break bread with people, or at the very least share a coffee with them.

  2. Well done, Marcie! What an inspiration for grassroots groups everywhere! I am going to print a copy of this and take it to an organizational meeting tomorrow night and ask for permission to read your story. Our meeting is composed of a much smaller group of people who organized about the same time and initially got involved in a local Township race – which we won – YEA! The group has expanded, gotten so much better organized, and we are re-building the Democratic Party from the ground up in a very red county, with full awareness of the long-game before us.

    Your post offers a template for grassroots activism at its best. Thanks again for sharing. Bobo and Fly have stories to share as well about their experiences, and likely many other Political Orphan commentators do too. I hope they will share in comments or posts as you have done.

    Congrats on a great post and on your successful political experience. THAT is what Democracy is about!

      1. Believe me, I have learned well that it all begins at home. We have now morphed into several groups (who share but are not as well integrated as your group was), and we are focused on state and national races. We are forming a PAC, and have set up precinct chairs for just about all 109 precincts in Montgomery County…again, building from scratch. We trained clerks and judges so Dems would be represented at polling sites. There is so much to be done and yes, Dems are way behind. But, as your effort demonstrates, it can be done with focus, hard work, and determination. I really believe the mood of the country right now is trending “blue”. I hope so as it is imperative for Democracy to survive that representation be balanced and the process fair. That will not happen under the current scenario, and a lot of the fault is our own. We can “fix” this, but we need to do a whole lot of work fast to meet our Mid-Term challenge. Like you, I am committed to doing all I can to stop wishing and start organizing. No whining allowed! Action!!

    1. Mary, that is tremendous that you have been able to find people for all of your precincts. We are actively working on that right now.

      Here is something to consider as you form your PAC. If you are formally incorporated, your access to the campaigns you work with will be limited. At least in Pennsylvania, election laws forbade the Lamb campaign from officially talking with some of the groups who had set up as 501c4s. We had a mix of incorporated and private groups here in PA 18, and that worked out very well for us.

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