Interviews for Resistance: Bird-Dogging To Stop Trumpcare in the Senate

This organizer is training activists on how to track down representatives and ask questions.

Sarah Jaffe May 16, 2017

The GOP’s healthcare bill, which has already passed the House, faces a tougher fight in the Senate. (Photo credit: Sarah Jaffe)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. Since elec­tion night 2016, the streets of the Unit­ed States have rung with resis­tance. Peo­ple all over the coun­try have wok­en up with the con­vic­tion that they must do some­thing to fight inequal­i­ty in all its forms. But many are won­der­ing what it is they can do. In this series, we’ll be talk­ing with expe­ri­enced orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers and thinkers who have been doing the hard work of fight­ing for a long time. They’ll be shar­ing their insights on what works, what does­n’t, what’s changed and what is still the same. 

"Now is not the time to slow down. Now is the time to ramp it up."

Jen­nifer Fly­nn: I am Jen­nifer Fly­nn and I am work­ing with CPD, Cen­ter for Pop­u­lar Democracy.

Sarah Jaffe: You have been work­ing on plan­ning for and protest­ing against all sorts of poten­tial hor­rors com­ing from the Repub­li­cans in terms of health­care pol­i­cy since the begin­ning of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. Right?

Jen­nifer: Yes, absolute­ly. Right after the elec­tion the group of grass­roots orga­niz­ing groups got back togeth­er under the umbrel­la of Health­care for Amer­i­ca Now” and they recon­sti­tut­ed this amaz­ing coali­tion that brought togeth­er the D.C. Belt­way pol­i­cy peo­ple, the think tanks, the media savvy groups, the large email groups with the groups that are com­prised of the peo­ple who will be most direct­ly impact­ed by these cuts: low income peo­ple around the coun­try who are orga­nized fight­ing for jobs, fight­ing for health­care, and work­ing on many dif­fer­ent issues. That is actu­al­ly the coali­tion that is large­ly cred­it­ed for lead­ing the fight that actu­al­ly won Obamacare.

Sarah: It is kind of impor­tant to remem­ber how that process went down in the first place. Talk a lit­tle bit about the work that you were doing back when — not that many years ago — when Oba­macare was actu­al­ly pushed through.

Jen­nifer: I did not have the priv­i­lege of work­ing direct­ly with Health­care for Amer­i­ca. I did work with grass­roots orga­niz­ing groups. Pri­mar­i­ly, I was work­ing with orga­ni­za­tions that were led by peo­ple with AIDS who cared very deeply about pass­ing the Afford­able Care Act, or Oba­macare. Cer­tain­ly, we were work­ing along­side HCAN.

But HCAN, Health­care for Amer­i­ca Now is com­prised of most­ly old chap­ters of ACORN, the amaz­ing, pio­neer­ing, grass­roots orga­niz­ing group that actu­al­ly was tak­en down by Bre­it­bart Media, Steve Ban­non, peo­ple who are very much in pow­er now. Many of those groups went and recon­sti­tut­ed them­selves and their mem­bers and just formed anoth­er orga­ni­za­tion. So, some of those orga­ni­za­tions are still around today under a dif­fer­ent name, dif­fer­ent lead­er­ship, and still fight­ing under this umbrel­la orga­ni­za­tion of Health­care for Amer­i­ca Now.

Sarah: When Trump was elect­ed, health­care was one of the first things that went through a lot of people’s minds, since the Repub­li­can Con­gress had pledged to over­turn Oba­macare for approx­i­mate­ly ever. Tell us about the reac­tion, Day 1 after the elec­tion or even before the elec­tion if there was any plan­ning going on then.

Jen­nifer: Def­i­nite­ly. Some peo­ple actu­al­ly believed that Trump might win. Peo­ple had already start­ed talk­ing about how vul­ner­a­ble the Afford­able Care Act was. The House had vot­ed 60 times to undo it unsuc­cess­ful­ly. We knew that this was com­ing and some­thing that he said he would do on Day 1. We also knew that if we could slow down this fight and if we could build a resis­tance based on this fight, that would only help every oth­er issue that is part of the Trump agenda.

A lot of oth­er groups that are part of the Cen­ter for Pop­u­lar Democ­ra­cy net­work are also new immi­grant groups. So, we knew there would be these very tar­get­ed attacks on immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties. We real­ly saw this as one fight togeth­er, that if we could slow down on health­care, that would actu­al­ly help immi­grants, help stop some of the more hor­ren­dous poli­cies. I still think that is true. It is hard to believe, but we would actu­al­ly see poli­cies that were much worse.

A cou­ple of days after the elec­tion, a col­league of mine from the AIDS world — we actu­al­ly worked togeth­er in an orga­ni­za­tion that came out of an effort of bird-dog­ging, of fol­low­ing around elect­ed offi­cials back in the late 1990s. We worked togeth­er in this orga­ni­za­tion that was real­ly known for bird-dog­ging, par­tic­u­lar­ly the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates when they would go around to Iowa and New Hamp­shire. So, we had done that work all along. We had been on the cam­paign trail fol­low­ing Trump so we actu­al­ly could wit­ness first-hand how pop­u­lar he was in cer­tain parts of the country.

My col­league sent out an email just on two list­servs — these kind of list­servs that sprung up the night of the elec­tion where thou­sands of peo­ple joined imme­di­ate­ly because we were all so des­per­ate for some­thing to do in a com­mu­ni­ty, to com­mis­er­ate with. He said, I don’t real­ly know what to do in this time.” My col­league, by the way, is named Paul Davis. He now works at Hous­ing Works. He said, I don’t real­ly know what to do at this time, but the one thing I have done in the past that was very effec­tive under pre­vi­ous Repub­li­can admin­is­tra­tions, par­tic­u­lar­ly under the Bush Jr. admin­is­tra­tion, is that we would do this very tar­get­ed bird-dog­ging cam­paign where we would not let any elect­ed offi­cial off the hook and just repeat­ed­ly ask them ques­tions and through our ques­tion-ask­ing move them, get that dif­fer­ent answer each time. We are actu­al­ly mov­ing them from being strong­ly opposed to our view to being clos­er to our side.” He said, So, if you can get 15 peo­ple and a space, I will come out and do a training.”

He just thought a bunch of peo­ple where he lived or he is close to, some place where he could get to eas­i­ly with sign up and he would go and do a cou­ple of train­ings. With­in three days, he had 32 cities sched­uled. Some­one on the list for­ward­ed it to a bunch of oth­er peo­ple, went on a bunch of oth­er lists, peo­ple found 15 friends and they rent­ed a space or a library avail­able, and he was sud­den­ly inun­dat­ed with these requests. He brought in myself and anoth­er of our col­leagues and went to Hous­ing Works and said, Hey, I think this is going to turn into some­thing.” They actu­al­ly end­ed up hir­ing him. So, the three of us have been going around, the same prin­ci­ple: We will train any­body who has got 15 peo­ple in a space. We have trained over 1,000 peo­ple. We are con­tin­u­ing those trainings.

Then, we orga­nize peo­ple on the list­serv to go and do actions and to move elect­eds through a series of ques­tions. We help peo­ple draft the ques­tions. We help peo­ple think about, Well, what if the town hall has 200 peo­ple in it and you real­ly can’t get called on?” or What if they are not call­ing on peo­ple and they are just using these tele-town halls or they are just using ques­tions that were writ­ten ahead of time?” We brain­storm with all the peo­ple that we train on cre­ative ways to hack into those new style of non-town halls” as I like to call them. In the first recess, over 100,000 dis­tinct peo­ple — and that is just what we could count — had tak­en action, direct action, with their Con­gress mem­bers. So, real­ly an unprece­dent­ed amount of activ­i­ty. Obvi­ous­ly, this is large­ly because of Indi­vis­i­ble and MoveOn and SwingLeft and Action Togeth­er — some of the groups that popped up after the elec­tion who have real­ly been focus­ing on bring­ing this mes­sage to their Con­gress members.

I think it is just going to con­tin­ue. I think it is actu­al­ly going to become a bet­ter tac­tic as few­er peo­ple go to town halls, because it is one of the few times when you are direct­ly able to ask some­one who can turn on or off the lights on your issue, who has the pow­er, their fin­ger on the but­ton to do some­thing about it. You could actu­al­ly hold them account­able and have them explain why they are vot­ing the wrong way or they are sup­port­ing some­thing … It is a very impor­tant tac­tic to use as we head into the Sen­ate vote which we expect to hap­pen in June.

Sarah: In terms of see­ing this work, obvi­ous­ly for var­i­ous rea­sons, peo­ple have said that this bill faces high­er obsta­cles in the Sen­ate, but I am think­ing about What are some easy lessons peo­ple can take from the suc­cess­es that peo­ple have had so far in these town halls, the suc­cess­ful halt­ing of the bill the first time around?” What kinds of things have you learned just since this process has begun?

Jen­nifer: I think that some­thing that is impor­tant to remem­ber is this is going to be relent­less. So, beat­ing it back, slow­ing it down in the Sen­ate this go-round, which I think we are absolute­ly capa­ble of doing, doesn’t mean we get through this recess and then it is over and we have won. They are going to keep try­ing to do this at every turn. We actu­al­ly have to think about ways that this can build our move­ment. And the admin­is­tra­tion, as we saw with the House, will use every sin­gle tool that they have in their tool­box to pres­sure the sen­a­tors and to pres­sure the House when they have to vote again, to vote the way that they want, to vote for the ter­ri­ble AHCA in what­ev­er form.

By the way, we believe that, yes, we can win some­thing on the Sen­ate side. We think that we can prob­a­bly do away with the Med­ic­aid block grant, but we don’t think that we will be able to do away with the Med­ic­aid per capi­ta caps, which is a struc­tur­al reform to Med­ic­aid and does actu­al­ly shift it from being an enti­tle­ment to being some­thing that a state choos­es. That actu­al­ly, is dev­as­tat­ing to the Med­ic­aid pro­gram. We think of it as this thing that is there for us when, God for­bid, some­thing hap­pens to us and we get sick and we need Med­ic­aid, right? And it is just no longer being tak­en for grant­ed if that hap­pens, that it will be there for us. In many states it won’t be there. You even hear a Con­gress mem­ber say­ing, Well, just move to anoth­er state.”

Right now, the House cov­ers 1 per­cent of pre-exist­ing con­di­tions. Some of them are very fun­ny — like, a c‑section is not cov­ered, but a vasec­to­my is. That is not a pre-exist­ing con­di­tion where you won’t get health insur­ance. But, we think that we can win back some of these, but we will have 10 per­cent, maybe at most, of pre-exist­ing con­di­tions cov­ered and will still be a loss of health­care for, at this point — we will know from the CBO [Con­gres­sion­al Bud­get Office] score, which should come out some­time next week — just how many Amer­i­cans would lose health insur­ance under the plan that passed the House, which is prob­a­bly more than 24 mil­lion. But, it will still be dev­as­tat­ing to many peo­ple in the country.

I think that a thing to learn is just that we have to be relent­less and we have to actu­al­ly real­ly move Sen­a­tors over to our side. It can’t just be some­thing that is tem­po­rary. They have to feel that we are going to remem­ber this when we go to elect the new House in 2018 and that we are going to remem­ber it beyond that. Because remem­ber, sen­a­tors have got a cou­ple of years in office. So, we need to prove to them that we have got a long mem­o­ry and that this will impact their jobs. So, when Trump says — as he did to Rep. [Rod­ney] Frel­inghuy­sen in New Jer­sey — he said, I will take away your chair­man­ship of Ways and Means.” Obvi­ous­ly, that means a loss of mon­ey for him. It means the loss of a nice office for him. A loss of a lot of staff for him. A loss of pres­tige. A loss of pow­er. We need to be able to say, For­get about your chair­man­ship, we are going to take away your whole job.” Some­how we have to send the mes­sage that is true, so we have to start think­ing that way. We have to start real­ly orga­niz­ing our­selves that way. I think that the 2018 elec­tion is actu­al­ly incred­i­bly cru­cial to prove that this will have an impact.

Sen­ate: In the Sen­ate, in par­tic­u­lar, are there any tar­gets that are up for re-elec­tion in the next elec­tion cycle who might be vul­ner­a­ble to pres­sure because they might actu­al­ly lose an election?

Jen­nifer: Yes, I think there are sen­a­tors who are also vul­ner­a­ble because they are some­what on the fence. There is Susan Collins who some­times votes dif­fer­ent­ly or thinks dif­fer­ent­ly. There is [Lisa] Murkows­ki, there is [Dean] Heller, [Shel­ley] Capi­to, [Jeff] Flake, [Bill] Cas­sidy, [Rob] Port­man … Then there are some sen­a­tors who are just sort of sur­pris­ing and do dif­fer­ent things like [Tom] Cot­ton or [John] Booz­man or have been say­ing things about they have some seri­ous ques­tions about the bill as it was passed. Our job is to try to make it so that what­ev­er com­pro­mise is cre­at­ed, we shine a light on all the deficits, because it will have all of the deficits. It just may cov­er them up a lit­tle bit.

Indi­vis­i­ble wrote this amaz­ing guide and they have cre­at­ed an amaz­ing infra­struc­ture. They put this one thing in the guide. I have trained a lot of peo­ple who get their direc­tion from the Indi­vis­i­ble guide. They put this one thing in where they said, By all means, always be from the dis­trict, because oth­er­wise you will be crit­i­cized as you’re bussed in.” I just want to say, that, I think, slowed us down a lot. Peo­ple were very reluc­tant to dri­ve 10 miles to anoth­er person’s dis­trict and ques­tion and go to the office of that Con­gress mem­ber. There were thou­sands of peo­ple in South Orange, New Jer­sey who want­ed to go to Frelinghuysen’s office, but he is two miles away in a dif­fer­ent district.

It took a while for peo­ple to rec­og­nize, Con­gress — just like in reg­u­lar soci­ety — there are some Con­gress mem­bers who are more pow­er­ful than oth­ers. Rep. [Tom] MacArthur rep­re­sents 700,000 peo­ple and his actions took away health­care for 24 mil­lion peo­ple around the coun­try. It is absolute­ly fine to go to anoth­er dis­trict. It is absolute­ly fine to go and meet with some­one who has the abil­i­ty to make a life and death deci­sion for you and explain why you dis­agree with them. I just real­ly encour­age us all and obvi­ous­ly it’s eas­i­er for the Sen­ate because our sen­a­tors rep­re­sent the whole state, but in New York we know [Chuck] Schumer is going to be … he is not going to cave, hope­ful­ly. But, we can go to New Jer­sey. We can go to Ohio. We can pres­sure Port­man. We can go to Penn­syl­va­nia. I don’t know that we will have any impact on [Pat] Toomey, but we can trav­el and we can talk to oth­er mem­bers. We can go to Maine and spend a week there and talk to Collins about why she should stand strong.

Sarah: I want­ed to ask a cou­ple of ques­tions about bird-dog­ging. As we have seen, Con­gress mem­bers are less like­ly now to hold any sort of pub­lic town hall, but their sched­ules are often pub­lic, or at least parts of their sched­ules are often pub­lic, as we saw this week in New York when every­body showed up to see Paul Ryan out­side of Harlem Suc­cess Acad­e­my. Do you have any advice for peo­ple to find out where their con­gressper­son is going to be?

Jen­nifer: In this orga­ni­za­tion that I used to work for, which I will give a shout out to, Health­GAP, which came out of a bird-dog­ging effort, we saw every oppor­tu­ni­ty as a bird-dog­ging effort. Town halls are just one small part of it. The best ones are actu­al­ly fundrais­ers. Those are actu­al­ly fair­ly easy to find out about, espe­cial­ly if you live in the dis­trict. The per­son at the hard­ware store might say, I am hav­ing a house par­ty for so-and-so.”

It is ter­ri­ble that peo­ple run for office almost the day after they are elect­ed into office. It is also great for bird-dog­ging because they are almost con­stant­ly fundrais­ing. If you find out in the local paper that there is a fundrais­er, go to it. I have this fun­ny sto­ry of some stu­dents who went to a fundrais­er. It was one of these house par­ties were peo­ple are stand­ing around with wine and there is some cheese. Then, the can­di­date comes in or the elect­ed offi­cial comes in, gives a speech, and then there are real­ly no ques­tions because it sort of feels like every­body knows every­body. He will just come around and shake hands and say, Thank you” and leave.

So, they went and he is giv­ing a stump speech. Then, one of the stu­dents just raised her hand. He said, Oh, I am not going to take ques­tions. I will come around and talk to each one of you indi­vid­u­al­ly. I real­ly want to get to know you,” because every­one in the room is sup­posed to be a donor. Then, she just stood there and kept her hand raised. Then, her friends just raised their hands. So, there are three peo­ple who know no one at this house par­ty and the host comes over and says, I am sor­ry. He is not tak­ing ques­tions. Put your hands down.” They just stared straight at them and kept their hands raised. A mur­mur is going through the room. Final­ly, he feels uncom­fort­able and these are donors, so he says, I guess I will take some questions.”

So, do not allow — it is not impo­lite to ask a ques­tion. I did hear that a reporter got arrest­ed for ask­ing a ques­tion too loud­ly of Price. But, up until then, I have nev­er heard of any­one get­ting arrest­ed for ask­ing a ques­tion. It is the cor­ner­stone of democ­ra­cy. They are our elect­ed offi­cials, or they are try­ing to get into office — you have every right to ask them ques­tions and those ques­tions can be stri­dent. You can ask them why they took away health­care for 24 mil­lion peo­ple. You can ask them how they expect to vote on Med­ic­aid. Do they intend to pre­serve it as an enti­tle­ment? Do it at every juncture.

Obvi­ous­ly, it is hard­er when there are these kind of protests. Although, they also serve a pur­pose. There are so many peo­ple com­ing, you can’t nec­es­sar­i­ly get in a ques­tion. But, one thing that they did yes­ter­day at the Paul Ryan event was they had almost a 1,000 peo­ple out­side — I thought it was almost 1,000 — and then they had a small­er group that stood by the doors ready to shake hands and ask a ques­tion. That is a real­ly smart way to get direct ques­tions to elect­ed offi­cials in this moment. It doesn’t always mean that is always suc­cess­ful, but I think it is okay, because I think that the media that was gen­er­at­ed yes­ter­day at the Paul Ryan Suc­cess Acad­e­my protest real­ly sent him a mes­sage that peo­ple are unhap­py about the health­care bill and, frankly, about his sup­port of char­ter schools.

Sarah: Any more advice for peo­ple who want to be doing this?

Jen­nifer: In our train­ing there are two things that we pri­or­i­tize. One, ques­tion writ­ing. We encour­age peo­ple who can, to write it down. One, because the process of writ­ing it down helps embed it into your mem­o­ry. Two, because it is always nerve-wrack­ing. I would rather talk to 500 peo­ple in a room in front of 500 peo­ple than to talk to one elect­ed offi­cial, who maybe seems like he can out­smart me.

The oth­er things is, we encour­age peo­ple not to ask ques­tions on the tech­ni­cal details. You don’t need to know what per capi­ta caps are or what health sav­ings accounts are. You don’t need to explain that. Just ask the basic ques­tions. Will your plan increase the num­ber of peo­ple who will have access to health insur­ance? Will your plan keep Med­ic­aid as an enti­tle­ment? All of those things are fine to ask in the most basic sense. Tell a per­son­al story.

The oth­er very mag­i­cal thing is to raise your hand — if they do take ques­tions — first, fast, and high. There is some­thing in the human DNA where we have to call on peo­ple when they raise their hand first. It is not jump­ing out of your seat, because that scares peo­ple. It is just putting your hand up very con­fi­dent­ly. It is actu­al­ly real­ly, real­ly hard to do because you are all pre­pared, you are ner­vous, you got in, you sat down, you wrote your ques­tion down, you met with the team, you are sit­ting in dif­fer­ent loca­tions so they can’t say, The right side of the room are all the crazy left-wingers” or what­ev­er. You just want anoth­er 30 sec­onds to get it togeth­er, so you don’t want to raise your hand first, but that is the key to get­ting a ques­tion in. It is to just raise your hand and then take the five sec­ond breath before you ask it.

Sarah: Any last thoughts for what peo­ple can do or where they can con­nect up with groups that are doing this work around healthcare?

Jen­nifer: If any­body wants to be trained in bird-dog­ging and get con­nect­ed to a nation­al effort to go out and bird-dog oth­er can­di­dates, they cer­tain­ly can con­tact me or Paul Davis or Jaron Ben­jamin, who are at Hous­ing Works. My email is jflynn@​populardemocracy.​org. If you got 15 peo­ple in a space, we will come out. Of course, you can get lots of infor­ma­tion at Town Hall Project about where there are events.

If your elect­ed doesn’t do a town hall, then make one your­self. Get the library com­mu­ni­ty room and make a fly­er, make a Face­book event and invite a bunch of peo­ple. Send a let­ter to your elect­ed say­ing that you are going to hold a town hall and they bet­ter show up. Now, you can actu­al­ly get the clos­est more pro­gres­sive Con­gress mem­ber to do the Adopt-a-Dis­trict, and they might hold a town hall in lieu of the Con­gress mem­ber who won’t, which is a great way to get media atten­tion. You can have an emp­ty suit or a pic­ture of the Con­gress mem­ber who won’t show up. Then, you just hold a town hall. Ask the ques­tions just as you want and just let the vio­lence sit there with their non-response, which is a real­ly pow­er­ful thing. Then, of course, Face­book Live it, put it up on the Internet.

Indi­vis­i­ble sends out an email every week with updates. Of course get con­nect­ed to MoveOn and Resis­tance Near Me … I think it will help build a move­ment and get us to the sum­mer if we can real­ly delay the vote in the Sen­ate in June. If you were get­ting burned out, but you have it in you to con­tin­ue doing a high lev­el of action, please do so to delay the health­care bill past June. They will break for the sum­mer. We will buy our­selves some time. Then, there is actu­al­ly some tech­ni­cal things that reset the process a lit­tle bit. We have even bought our­selves some more time if we can just get through the sum­mer. Now is not the time to slow down. Now is the time to ramp it up. That is not to say that is not going to be a marathon. It is def­i­nite­ly going to be a marathon, but this is a key time to try to save health­care for 24 mil­lion people.

Sarah: Oth­er than email­ing you, can peo­ple keep up with you on social media, as well?

Jen­nifer: Yes, sure. On Twit­ter I am @JenniferFlynn and my Face­book is Jen­nifer Fly­nn Walker.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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