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.