Citizen Action & Open Source Lobbying by The Roots Project

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Big Day of Rooting and Crashing

by Jim Preston

On May 23rd, 2006 Dave Melson and I, of the Maryland Roots Project had a big day in the Nation's Capitol. We spent the morning in the offices of the Foreign Relations Staffers of Maryland Senators Sarbanes and Mikulski, and then spent the afternoon helping deliver copies of Crashing the Gate to Democratic House and Senate Members of Congress. We were hungry, tired, happy, and quite exhilarated by the end of the day and were proud to have been involved.

The legislative meetings that Dave and I had set up were based around trying to get more information about the state of the administration's plans regarding Iran. We also wanted to share our ideas about the Iranian situation. We felt that the staffers on the hill already knew what the activists had to say, so we would treat it more as an information-sharing session that as a straight advocacy session. This approach worked very well for us, as we had very interesting discussions and I think everybody learned something. Another friend of mine who is a senior staffer told me later that this was the best approach to take, as nobody really wants to set up a meeting just to get yelled at with talking points that they have already heard a thousand times.

Our first meeting of the day was with Mariah Sieber, a Legislative Assistant to Senator Paul Sarbanes, Maryland's longest-serving Senator, who plans to retire this year. Sen. Sarbanes is most visible for his work on the Senate Banking Committee, but has traditionally been an anti-war voice and works quite hard behind the scenes to slow down the Bush agenda. Ms. Sieber described the Senator's frustration at the fact that, here at the end of his career, he is forced to spend all of his time and energy trying to stop the Republicans from accomplishing their goals instead of trying to do something positive for his country. Ms. Sieber was incredibly engaged and knowledgable about Iran and the rest of the Middle East. She explained to us that it seemed that the administration might begin to accept more direct negotiation with Iran. Events over the last few weeks have demonstrated that the administration is willing to at least attempt to make the appearance of trying to negotiate with Iran. Of course, since the US policy towards Iran is still "regime change", there is a lot of doubt about what value these negotiations could have. Ms. Sieber described a little bit of the issue of "power centers" in Central Asia that we don't hear much about. For example, the US nuclear deal with India is related to providing a balance to China, which all sounds good, until she explains that China will very likely offer a similar deal to Pakistan. She also described the devolving situation in Russia, which is falling apart socially and economically and is slipping back into totalitarian rule. As you begin to understand a little more about the Asian landmass, full of these diverse, troubled, states, lots of oil resources, and a rather large number of nuclear weapons, you get a pretty strong feeling that cooler heads than Bush, Cheney, Rice, and Rumsfeld ought to be dealing with the situation.

An important point that Ms. Sieber brought up with us were that some (Zionist?) groups like to lobby congress wearing pins that say "The Time is Now". These pins purport to answer the question, "When should the US invade Iran?" Another important point was that Sen. Hagel needed more Republican support for limiting unsupervised funds that are being put into Iranian regime-change efforts to fend off neo-con messianic terrorism funding by the likes of Sen. Santorum. Like almost all mainstream thinkers, Ms. Sieber recommends that sanctions be used as the "stick" in the negotiations with Iran. I don't really see what the benefits of sanctions are myself, but she felt that it was important for the US to have a negative stance toward a country like Iran that participates in ethnic and religous persecution.

Our second meeting was with Carol Chuhta, a staffer for Senator Barbara Mikulski, who also voted against the Iraq war resolution. At this point, we were somewhat talked-out, since niether Dave nor I is used to going to meetings all the time. However, we were able to keep our composure enough to learn that Sen. Mikulski favors a strong reconstruction effort in Iraq (which of course isn't working out because of the security situation). She also does not think that regime change is a very viable policy toward Iran. Sen. Mikulski supports the IAEA, and multi-lateral diplomatic talks with Iran. She is a strong supporter of non-proliferation. Like the rest of us, Ms. Chuhta cannot find the line between what is politics and what is policy in the administration's stance toward Iran.

On the whole, we were very impressed by the level of knowledge and interest that both of these women demonstrated and we felt that they were doing an excellent job staying abreast of the situation. You won't find many people "on the inside" in DC who are as anti-war as I am, but it was good to hear that there are folks who are not at all interested in glorifying and expanding the war.

After we left these meetings, Dave and I headed out toward the House office buildings, hoping to see a confused gang of Rooters schlepping a dolly of books around. I had originally planned to bring the books to the Capitol in my car, but Jay and the group had made other plans, so Dave and I were on a mission to hook up with them and do an activity that involved more walking than talking. Our visual inspection technique was not productive, and a few cell-phone calls later, we found ourselves in a House Office with Jay, Edrie, Matt, and quite a big pile of books. The books were all labeled and in order, and Edrie was the super-guide, who pointed us to the elevators, maps, tunnels, and secret passageways. I didn't listen too carefully to her directions, because the only way I know how to learn my way around is to get lost and then find my way home, but her help was appreciated. Dave and I decided to stick together and we set off with a few books each for our initial deliveries.

Most of the deliveries we made were just to the front desk of the various representatives' offices. We gave our little speech about how the book was a manifesto on grassroots, netroots, and people-powered politics in the information age, and moved on. Our warmest reception occurred at the office of Darlene Hooley (OR-5) (photo above). Rep. Hooley had had some interesting interactions with bloggers from blueoregon.com, and wanted to make a good impression with us. Her Legislative Director, Joan Mooney Evans, let us know that Rep. Hooley really wanted to meet us and get a picture so we waited for a few minutes until she got back from another meeting. They were all very nice, and Rep. Hooley was really great. She is very down-to-earth and enjoys a good laugh. She regaled us with stories about her appearance on Colbert, which I was excited to be able to pass on to my kids. We were all laughing about "The Fightin' Fifth" as we took the picture and went on our merry way. We also had a very pleasant reception at the offices of Grace Napolitano (CA-38). Her IT director was very excited to make contact with us, probably thinking that we were a little closer to the top of the food chain in DKos-dom, but was very pleasant and happy about the book.

We had quite a bit of fun creeping around the House offices and got to peek into the offices of some pretty exciting people. I was especially honored to deliver the book to the offices of Maxine Waters, Dennis Kucinich, and John Lewis. The first two of these are, of course, two of the strongest and bravest anti-war voices in the House, and Rep. Lewis has been called "one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced". Now that's what I call a compliment!

After our House deliveries, we dragged ourselves over to the Dirksen and Hart Senate buildings, got a new load of books, and forged ahead. The Senate offices are bigger and more spread out than the House offices, but there aren't as many of them. This was good news as everybody's feet were getting pretty tired (except Dave, who has country-boy energy and a kayaking construction-worker's physique). In the Senate offices, we didn't have any contact with the Senators, although we did have the honor of delivering books to the offices of Sen Feingold, Sen. Byrd, and, if I recall correctly, Sen. Boxer. Sen. Feinstein's office has a strict no-gift policy, which is reasonable enough, given the stench of corruption that has been emanating from the hill recently. (Ed: We mailed the book to Senator Feinstein afterwards.)

When we were done with the deliveries, Dave and I had to head out and miss the final meetings, but we felt that we had had a very exciting and involved day in Washington. I hadn't yet received my own copy of Crashing the Gate, but I have read it since then. I find the analysis fairly thin, but it was not meant to be an academic work. I certainly can't argue with the success that Kos and Jerome have had in reaching out and getting more people involved in progressive politics. I really hope to see the blogospere engage in more meaningful dialogue with other progressive elements such as the anti-war movement. I don't think that anyone can deny that there are some turf battles going on in the blogosphere that serve no purpose. I'm no expert on the blogosphere, but I have been involved with open-source software and the internet for almost twenty years. This is not the first time that a "new paradigm" has "changed everything", nor will it be the last. Sometimes the real genius is to see what it is that hasn't changed. Probably twenty years from now, there will be stodgy web-veterans making lots of money showing campaigns how to do things "the way it's always been done" and telling them that that's the only way to do it. We should all save our copies of Crashing the Gate to beat each other over the head with if we're the ones complaining about another "new media" Crashing the Gates of our "Sacred Mainstream Blogosphere"!

Thanks to Jay, Matt/Philo, Edrie, and the rest of the CtG team for making the event happen. I hope to see you all in DC on September 21, 2006 to celebrate the International Day of Peace.