Busy signal: Some lawmakers have been tough to contact in recent days
February 1, 2017 12:00 AM
More than 300 demonstrators chant "Where's Pat?" at the fourth installment of "Tuesdays with Toomey" on Tuesday at the Landmark Building in Station Square. The weekly event is an effort to publicly confront the senator with concerns about Trump administration policies and appointments.
By Tracie Mauriello and Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dana Kellerman just wanted to tell her senator to vote against confirming education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos.
So on Monday she made more than 30 phone calls to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s Pennsylvania and D.C. offices, but each time she either got a busy signal or was directed to a voicemail box that was full. She sent e-mails, but received only formulaic responses. Undeterred, she went to his Station Square office with a group of activists who have been appearing there every Tuesday. She had no luck there, either.
“I feel completely ignored,” said Dr. Kellerman, a veterinarian who lives in Fox Chapel.
She isn’t the only one.
Activists across the country, and many in Pennsylvania, say they have been unable to get through to lawmakers’ offices, many of which have been inundated with phone calls and constituent visits since Donald Trump was elected president.
Mr. Toomey, R-Pa., is among the hardest to reach, say some constituents.
One persistent caller, Gina Jamieson, said that in recent days she has been able to speak to staffers for prominent Republicans including Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Lindsay Graham, R-S.C.; Bob Casey, D-Pa.; and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. All oppose at least some of Mr. Trump’s policies, and it’s likely that callers are targeting lawmakers they want to persuade rather than those already on their side.
Ms. Jamieson, an actor who splits her time between Mt. Lebanon and New York City, said she’s called Mr. Toomey’s office daily since Election Day. She did get through twice about a month ago: She left a voicemail on one occasion, and on the second spoke with a staff member who logged her name, zip code and her opinion — don’t repeal it — on the Affordable Care Act.
Since then, Ms. Jamieson has tried to be heard on Mr. Trump’s immigration ban and the appointment of Stephen Bannon to the National Security Council, but she’s had no luck.
“It makes me think that Sen. Toomey is avoiding his constituents,” she said.
About a dozen other activists shared similar frustrations with the Pittsburch Post-Gazette this week.
Steve Kelly, a spokesman for Mr. Toomey, said the senator “does appreciate the feedback of all Pennsylvanians.” But while he declined to quantify the increase in call volumes, he said, “There is a lot going on in Washington right now. As such, many Pennsylvanians are calling to make their voices heard.” And while staff was taking an “all hands on deck” approach, they must still help constituents with tasks like applying for Medicare and Medicaid.
Elected officials are also contending with activists using strategies outlined in “Indivisible,” an online handbook widely circulated among Democrats. The guide emulates Tea Party strategies and emphasizes tactics like “mass office calling.”
“If you’re directed to voicemail, follow up with email,” it advises. “Then follow up again.”
Legislative offices aren’t staffed to handle the resulting deluge — not to mention the e-mail messages and letters that also are pouring in. Mr. Toomey, for example, has 25 staffers spread over seven offices in Pennsylvania and D.C.
Tuesday morning, the Post-Gazette called the Capitol offices of 20 U.S. senators, both Republicans and Democrats. In 11 cases — including at both Mr. Toomey’s and Mr. Casey’s offices — there were busy signals. Four voice mailboxes were full, three voicemail boxes were accepting messages, and two phones were answered by aides who said they took messages from constituents.
If the number of messages sent through FreeFaxes.com is any gauge, Mr. Toomey’s office is busier than most. According to the online faxing service, 1,392 messages had been sent to his office between noon Monday and noon Tuesday. That’s nearly twice as many as the 738 sent to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who received the second most. U.S. Rep. John Cornyn, R-Texas, was third with 252.
Constituents also have been reaching out in person, with mixed results.
In Washington Tuesday, a group of activists stormed into Mr. Toomey’s office but were told the senator was in a committee hearing.
The Rev. Regis Ryan, director of the Focus on Renewal community health center in McKees Rocks, was there to ask the senator to keep the Affordable Care Act in place.
“Our message to him is to get serious about the thousands of constituents in Pennsylvania who are facing some drastic changes in their health care situation,” Rev. Ryan said in an interview before he arrived.
Inside Mr. Toomey’s office, Denise Major, a home care worker from Philadelphia, pressed to meet with the senator.
“If he’s actually for us, can he give us his time to let us know he’s there for us?” she said.
Legislative staffer Brad Grantz shook participants’ hands and offered to find a meeting room to talk with the group.
In Pittsburgh, activists hoping for such interactions have been gathering for weekly protests dubbed “Tuesdays with Toomey” in front of his Station Square office.
Between 300 and 400 demonstrators turned out for the fourth such event Tuesday -- a crowd 10 times the size of the first such event, many of whose members chanted “Where’s Pat?”
Last week, several participants held a sit-down meeting in the office with Toomey staff. This week, however, “We were told they would no longer have meetings with us because they did that already,” said event co-organizer Jill Helbling.
“It’s not going to make us stop,” Ms. Helbling said. “We’ll come every week. They will see us and hear us and hopefully get the message.”
Indeed, a Toomey staffer met in the building’s lobby with several demonstrators this week. “Every time someone comes to this office [without] a meeting scheduled ... someone comes down,” said Mr. Kelly. “That is what we have done for six years and we will continue to do.”
But demonstrators said it was unfortunate such in-person visits seemed necessary.
“A lot of us tried the usual channels, but you couldn’t get ahold of anyone,” said Brownsville resident Caroline Moore, who was holding a sign that read, “Just hold a town hall already, geez.”
“I’m very irritated that Toomey isn’t responsive,” said Shadyside resident Marisa Bell, who said she’d tried reaching out by phone and social media. “I figured I had to come in person.”
Noah Levinson, a tech worker from Morningside, said he was turned away late Tuesday morning by a building security guard — not a Toomey employee — who said he had to contact building tenants before visitors could go upstairs. The security guard’s call, too, landed in the senator’s voicemail system, which was full.
“This is the United States government, and there’s sort of an understanding that they will make themselves available,” said Mr. Levinson. “I just want to have a conversation as a constituent and I’m unable to do so.”
“I know there are good people answering those phones and doing as much as they can,” he added. “But the system is breaking and they need to respond faster and better.”
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