The Power to Amend

Most people go through life without understanding how much power they actually have and the level of change they can make just by choosing to take action. I’m a citizen lobbyist which means I decided one day that I wanted to influence legislators. I didn’t ask anyone if I could be a lobbyist, I just decided in my mind that was what I was going to do. I asked a friend who was a lobbyist to take me with her when she was on Capitol Hill asking legislators to support HR 676 – Medicare for All. I spent the day with Donna and like the Peggy Lee song, I thought is that all there is?

My favorite legislative power story is about the Equal Rights Amendment; it was a Federal Constitutional amendment that needed to be ratified by three more states. I started going back to the Hill every month joining lobby group working on a wide range of issues. I figured out the dynamics and rules of the Hill and came into my own when friends asked me to help with the Equal Rights Amendment, specifically removing the ratification deadline. By then I had learned to look at the historical list of cosponsors through services like govtrack.us and congress.gov. I knew that getting 100 cosponsors on any piece of legislation meant that a bill would be seen as having a lot of support; I could see that our bill had never had more than 47 cosponsors. We needed to build perceived power to push a bill that had languished for 10 years with virtually no support and no Senate companion bill.

The Equal Rights Amendment is 24 simple words penned by Alice Paul

If it sounds familiar substitute the word “race” for sex and you will recognize it as the 15th Amendment. Women are the majority of the population, yet are not guaranteed equal rights under the law by the Constitution. Obviously, there were serious “power” issues when the majority cannot enact a simple rule. Legislatively you have a power problem when you have a bill in only the House with no Senate companion. I stopped in to see Sen. Sanders (this was pre-Presidential Bernie) and he said, “you need to go see Sen. Ben Cardin and tell him I sent you. Sen. Cardin wants to be the justice Senator and this is definitely a justice issue.” There is a lot of power in the recommendation of a respected and trusted colleague.

When you need to build any type of power, you immediately build your power map. Who supports your cause, who opposes your cause and who seems neutral. The more people you can put in the neutral area, the greater the probability that you can build enough power to get what you want. Power is all about making demands!

We built power by expanding the coalition from women’s groups to multi-issue progressive groups. Washington, DC is a town filled with progressive groups and no progressive groups were talking about the Equal Rights Amendment let alone actively supporting it. So the first order of business was to let all the progressive groups know there was a huge social injustice exists right under their noses and they weren’t even talking about it. Build a coalition of progressive groups and they will find more progressive groups and so on.

I learned early on that if Daily Kos took up an issue, it was an “issue” that others would want to join. In 2013 social media was still relatively new but people were joining and following. Memes targeting Members of Congress who were not supporting equality and justice for women got immediate shares and often calls from reporters. We chose one new target every week and built the number of cosponsors from 47 to 104. And then our lead sponsor left Congress under a cloud of scandal and we needed a new sponsor and were back to 0 cosponsors. I said I wanted Rep. Jackie Speier because I knew her history as Rep. Leo Ryan’s LA and I wanted someone who would join us in “fighting” for the bill and building cosponsors. We also still had the problem of getting 3 more states (out of 15 possibilities) to introduce and pass a Constitutional amendment. It was delightful to find that there were still local groups in states that were interested in ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment. Members had grown older but had not lost their passion for the issue.

We built the power that we needed in three states (Nevada, Illinois and Virginia). When our legislation failed in the 2019 session, we decided we needed to replace 4 members of the Virginia House with Delegates who would support the amendment. We won 8 seats in 2019 (2 Senate seats and 6 House seats) and I was asked to make the closing argument for ratification on HR 1 making Virginia the 38th state to ratify and opening the door for the 28th Constitutional amendment. As I looked around the House chamber, I saw the smiles of delegates that had heard me speak for 8 years on why we needed to pass the amendment. I saw the smile on the face of freshman Delegate Shelley Simonds who had lost in 2017 by one vote and a coin toss. She would be part of that historic delegation that would put Virginia in the history books as a ratified state as one of the candidates I had helped elect.

Published by Andrea Miller

Andrea Miller is an elections and GOTV strategist working to change dominant institutions. She is a Federal and Virginia state lobbyist working on climate, voting rights, mass incarceration, Medicare for All. She chairs the Democracy and Governance Working Group of the Virginia Green New Deal. She is founding Tri-Chair of the Virginia Poor People's Campaign.

6 thoughts on “The Power to Amend

  1. Andrea – Thanks so much for the piece and it was great to hear you color some of this in our peer group. I was struck by the line “The more people you can put in the neutral area, the greater the probability that you can build enough power to get what you want.” What do you think is more important as we build this Shared Ownership coalition, that we turn the opposition to neutral or that we turn neutral parties to supporters? What have proven to be some ways of accomplishing either in the past?

    I can tell from your story that you have a deep passion for the work, which seemed critical given the timeline and setbacks you experienced along the way. How do you stay engaged for the long term? How can others learn to do the same?

    The idea that you “just decided in [your] mind” to become a lobbyist is amazing to me. Many (read me) may feel a fear of failure or imposter syndrome along the way as they create change. How did you cultivate a mindset that seems to have missed those obstacles altogether?

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    1. I decided to become a lobbyist after my Congressional run in 2008. I realized I could either spend most of my time trying to raise money for my political campaign where I as a single member of Congress could try and move the other 534 members or I could become a lobbyist, recruit and train others and become a force on the Hill.

      At the time, I hated raising money and refused to do it (I only raised $38,000 for my Congressional race) and managed 40.7% of the vote. I preferred to spend my time at county fairs directly meeting people and having conversations about what they thought their representative in Washington should do for them.

      After the election, I realized, I could simply drive to Washington, walk into Congressional offices and ask them to support bills that did the things that folks I spoke with wanted. Lobbying your fellow citizens or elected officials is understanding the “spin” that makes people want to say yes. The first question you ask yourself is, “would I say yes if someone came to me with this? When you lobby, you’re selling a concept and explaining why this is good and helpful to each individual’s goals. How does it help the member of Congress get re-elected? Is this something popular that they can put in their toolbox? When you are talking to your friends, you’re explaining how this helps them and their family.

      The most effective lobbyists are children; they are consistent and persistent in their ask. They don’t beat around the bush it’s a straight request/demand and they know when to shut up and not talk themselves out of a yes.

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  2. “I’m a citizen lobbyist which means I decided one day that I wanted to influence legislators. I didn’t ask anyone if I could be a lobbyist, I just decided in my mind that was what I was going to do.”

    I loved this line and it really resonated with the concept of taking power. I only started doing hill visits a few years ago- it is not a big part of my job but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I felt powerful. There is such a mystique to the halls of power and yet you can just walk in with an appointment and a purpose.

    When I was reading I had a similar question as Phil- how have you gathered the patience and determination to win these long battles? I see policy as such a key piece to to the success of shared ownership, how do we collectively come up with a list of demands? How broad does support have to be for these demands? It seems the more people you include than the more diluted the demands become- how do you balance this dynamic?

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    1. I have been working for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment since I was 12 which means I have been involved for 54 years.

      When I work with legislation, I look at the history of who has supported it, opposed it and ignored it. I then determine how much energy will it take to disarm the opposition, where can we find immediate powerful support (both in numbers, numeric multipliers

      We built our talking points and identified those where there would be no compromise (ERA was NOT an abortion bill and we were not going to tolerate any group that wanted to say that equality guaranteed reproductive rights) Reproduction is where men and women are most obviously different. We did not invite any reproductive rights groups into the coalition that we were building (in the early days that meant that we kept Terry O’Neill (National NOW) and Ellie Smeal (Feminist Majority) at more than an arms length. In our power map, the fight for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment was now only women’s groups who had very little power. We decided to invite social and economic justice groups that weren’t dedicated to women’s issues; we said this was an economic issue that had a positive impact on everyone and especially helped women of color. Historically, the women’s movement had primarily been a movement of middle class white women, who periodically had refused to make room at the table for women of color. Since I was now setting the table, we reached out to southern and western women of color to show them how they could be the main beneficiaries of the revived Equal Rights Amendment. Our initial meme showed 5 women in silohuette with a wage comparison by race https://peopledemandingaction.org/campaigns/equal-rights-amendment.

      Once you have a compelling leadership group now you can bring folks who have been working on similar and related issues to join you as supporters (your first targets are groups that have more than a million people on their email list). You work with them to develop an email ask to educate people about the issue, and give them something to do (sign a petition in support). Then you offer grassroots training and build additional leadership always widening your network. Then you bring in challenger candidates looking for a “new” issue that will grab attention. Then you bring in the incumbent candidates because this issue will help them get re-elected.

      If I was building this coalition today, I would also bring in Faith institutions like we did on Trade and now Voter Suppression/Elections.

      One of the things I have learned from conservatives is that they often have a multi-year if not a multi-decade plan for how they are going to accomplish their goals. Writing and passing legislation is a marathon that has a couple of sprints (when your bill is coming up for a vote).

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  3. Wow, this story was riveting from start to finish. I think part of what I loved about this piece was the time scale of it. You traced the development of an issue over the course of years without even mentioning who the president was. Because he wasn’t relevant yet. The thing that was needed was to get the thing through Congress and the states. It’s inspiring and sane-making to remember that not everything that’s important is impossible when there is such a loathsome president.

    The other inspiring thing about the post is the steady, drum-beat like progress. Oh, you encountered obstacle A? I know that obstacles. Just do thing B until obstacle A goes away. I think about that quote from Shawshank Redemption, “Geology is the study of pressure and time.” The way you portray it, political change can work the same way. Apply the right pressure and keep pushing, and the change will come. Especially if you’re in the right (at least I hope).

    What are YOUR conclusions about the story? I feel like the lessons are there for the taking but aren’t quite spelled out. Is the moral of the story that anyone, even a beginner or an outsider to the process, can make a difference if they try hard enough and understand how power works? Is the moral about the need for patience and persistence? I think this already compelling piece would be even stronger if you helped the reader along in interpreting the meaning and import of the events you relate.

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    1. We worked on neutralizing the opposition first (there were 2 paths to ratification – starting over and getting 3 more states); in the beginning the strongest and most vocal opposition was people supporting the start over option. We immediately started a meme saying 3 is less than 38 meaning if we started over not only would we need to move everything through Congress, we would also need to get 38 states to ratify. There was no arguing with the fact that 3 is significantly less than 38 when you are looking at introducing and passing legislation in a multitude of states. I counted 16 states that would ratify immediately. Lobbying is about both the short game and the long game. Your strategy is really about how much power does the opposition have (in this case very little since it was other groups working on the same issue) and how quickly can you build support among the powerful (elected officials).

      When I’m lobbying I live in a transaction world; if you do this for me, I’ll do that for you. Every legislator has a bill that they want/need to have promoted. Because the organization I led at the time was multi-issue and we were initially moving progressives onto the bill, it was easy to say support this and I’ll help you with that. We went from a bill that normally had less than 50 cosponsors to a bill with more than 100. Once we reached 100, that meant that the soft opposition we faced from other groups began to dissipate and when we had 5 states introduce ratification legislation even Congress members started taking things seriously. We were working a Federal strategy interwoven with a multi-state strategy.

      Talking points are key to lobbying; they need to be simple, memorable, relevant and powerful. If people can’t say it, they can’t lobby on it! We got people started having simple conversations with their friends. We asked women college students if they got a 20% discount on their college tuition since they were going to make 20% less than their male counterparts throughout their working life. We asked husbands if they were content to lose 20% of their household income because their wives/partners earned less because they were women. We made equality about economy and household stability. The Equal Rights Amendment was defeated in the 80s because it became tied to reproductive freedom. We argued that Roe v Wade was decided on privacy NOT equality adding that even a 5 year old could tell you that boys and girls were different below the waist. Equality was about aspiration and what was in your mind – in short it was above the neck. The decoupling of abortion from the ERA made it possible to bring on major Republican support and in Virginia one of our biggest and most stalwart champions had introduced an anti-abortion bill; she joined us in stating that if women earned more, there would be far less economic need to terminate an unexpected pregnancy. Equality was now firmly tied to economy and nothing else. If you can turn your strongest opposition into your strongest supporter, life just got a lot easier. You have also now proven your power to convert and that now means other people will want to know how you did it.

      That argument was used successfully in Nevada in 2017; Nevada became the first state in the 21st century to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Nevada made strong use of our argument that the Equal Rights Amendment was purely an economic bill. In 2018 Illinois followed with a Republican pro-life Senator leading the charge saying that pro-life means being pro economic security and equality. Virginia attempted to ratify again in 2019; the bill successfully passed in the Senate led by our pro-life Senator. In the House the Chair of Privileges and Elections refused to docket the bill even though we had enough support to pass it.

      We needed 2 House seats to take Control of the Virginia legislature and get a new Chair of P&E that would bring the bill to a vote. We identified 20 House seats that included 3 potential pickup Senate seats (this had become a power play) and we honed in on 12. As grassroots organizers we made sure that equality was on everyone’s lips (men, women and children). In 2018 we had rolled out the VA Ratify ERA Bus and in 2019 we rolled out the I Scream for Equality ice cream truck. We texted, made phone calls, drove the ice cream truck to almost every college campus in Virginia and on election night 40% of Virginia voters turned out to vote in a state only election (up from 29% in 2015). We won 2 Senate seats and 6 House seats including the seat for Shelley Simonds, the woman who lost by a coin flip in 2017. The Equal Rights Amendment was docketed in the Senate as SB1 and in the House as HB1. On January 15th, 2020 Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Senator Jennifer McClellan and Delegate Jennifer Carroll-Foy (sponsors of the Equal Rights Amendment) are now both running to be the first woman and community of color Governor of Virginia

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