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Citizen engagement with Congress reached a high in 2017. How will it fare in 2018?

Year Two

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Plenty of local resistance was seen in early 2017. - NAT STEIN
  • Nat Stein
  • Plenty of local resistance was seen in early 2017.
Many folks who are generally displeased with the state of the world developed a new habit in 2017: contacting their elected representatives on a weekly, if not daily, basis. It’s one of several ways for people who aren’t lobbyists or donors to engage with the people who govern their lives. Aside from all the solo callers, coordinated efforts that catered to the movement against President Donald Trump — like the Indivisible Guide, 5 Calls and Resistbot — gave direction to constituents (many of whom were relatively inactive during President Barack Obama’s years in office), about whom to call, when and about what.

It amounted to a record year of citizen engagement. Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), a nonpartisan nonprofit that studies this sort of thing, penned a reflective blog post to that effect, with a major caveat. “If this year’s level of citizen engagement had continued into the fall it would have been the longest sustained citizen engagement movement since the Vietnam War. Except, it didn’t,” he wrote on the Brookings Institute’s FIXGOV blog. “Through contacts with congressional offices, CMF has learned that the numbers have receded — call and email volumes are significantly down. Yet, this will still be an historic year. In fact, congressional offices are reporting an increase for the year of 150-300 percent in constituent contacts, with most of the volume occurring during the first six months.”

But many activists are still at it, carrying their civic regimen into the new year. Trouble is, they’re not sure it’s working.

Take Margaret Schuster, a 56-year-old resident of the 80907 ZIP code. On a day off work, she had already made multiple calls to congressional offices before 10 a.m. For several months at the outset of 2017, Schuster made weekly visits to U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner’s local office at 102 S. Tejon St. She had a few productive conversations with staffers, but ceased the regular visits when a leg injury hindered her mobility. Then, she took up the phones, calling on a near-daily basis. Her calls were answered once about every five or six months, she thinks.

“[Gardner’s office] is better than [Mitch] McConnell’s or [Paul] Ryan’s,” she says. “Theirs just ring and ring, never going to voicemail. But all these voicemails — do [Gardner] staffers even listen to them? Do they just erase them?”

The Independent sought to find out, calling the senator’s local office every day during the first week of the new year. Each time, we left a message that wasn’t returned. The next week, we got a staffer to whom we posed questions about the local office’s policies regarding constituent engagement. She referred us to the communications director, Alex Siciliano, in Washington, D.C. No response by press time.
For the record, Colorado’s other senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, employs constituent advocates who”make every effort to respond to every phone call, email, and letter, and above all, listen to what constituents have to say and make sure Michael receives their feedback,” says spokesperson Laurie Cipriano. “Constituents who request a call back will get a call back.”

Schuster will keep calling her senators regularly. In fact, she says her calls to Gardner’s D.C. office have been answered more so far in 2018 than they had been for the last half of 2017. “I hope they keep it up,” she says.

Indivisible Front Range Resistance, an anti-Trump network spanning Colorado’s urban areas, also plans to build off their “Cardboard Cory” campaign, in which members hauled around cutouts of Gardner to make a point about never seeing him in person. After months of nagging, Gardner announced a handful of town halls.

Katie Farnan, an organizer of the effort, was gratified “that we could finally get into a room with him” but was ultimately disappointed to hear him repeat the same answers at each event. “He’d use the exact same phrasing too... So, no, the automaton routine wasn’t very productive,” she says, adding that members will likely call for more town halls this coming year.

For the record, Nathan Williams, managing director of the Town Hall Project, a national group that tracks town halls, says that “to the best of our knowledge,” Gardner held four town halls in 2017 (all in August and September) and attended another such event with Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper that the group didn’t consider a “true town hall because of insufficient time for questions from constituents.” By comparison, Bennet held 11 town halls (in March, May, June and August), Williams said, and Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents the 5th Congressional District, held five town halls last year, all in April.

In the new year, constituents may have better luck interacting with Lamborn via social media.

Anecdotally, we know of about 10 constituents who were “blocked” from commenting on the lawmaker’s Facebook page. Dean Miller, Lamborn’s new spokesperson hired in September, declined to say how many people in total were blocked from the page, but did share the office policy on the matter. “We reserve the right to delete user comments or block users for profanity, name-calling, threats, personal attacks, or other inappropriate comments or material,” Miller wrote by email. He added by phone that “it’s hard to explain” why people were blocked based on decisions made by his predecessor, Jared Rego, other than that there must have been violations. Some of those who were blocked tell the Indy their comments were civil but contrarian (though they were deleted, so it’s hard to verify). Miller also said by phone, “If we get a call from somebody who’s blocked and can’t figure out why, we’ll talk briefly, discuss the policy, and if they request to be unblocked, we can do that.” Telephone town halls are Lamborn’s preferred mode of engagement, so he can reach specific constituent groups remotely. That approach has been criticized for giving staff the ability to censor questions they don’t like.

Lamborn recently announced he’s running for his seventh term in Congress against three primary challengers. Gardner is up for reelection in 2020 and Bennet will be up in 2022.

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