Activism

5 Activism Suggestions That Worked: When Your Representatives Don't Listen

One key to success: Keep your tent wide and your path narrow.

Photo Credit: bakdc/Shutterstock

Nearly every Friday since Trump took office, constituents of longtime Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) took time out of their busy lives to visit his Morristown, New Jersey office to encourage him to protect Obamacare, to vote no on a GOP tax plan, and most importantly, to hold a town hall meeting (which it seemed like he bent over backward to avoid). Members of this tireless group, NJ 11th for Change, a branch of the Indivisible movement, never did get that town hall, but their tenacity may have landed them something better: his retirement. 

Frelinghuysen, who served as the chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, announced Monday morning that he would not seek reelection in New Jersey's 11th congressional district. He is the eighth long-serving Republican to call it quits in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, and the second in the last week, after Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania. Unlike Meehan, and fellow retiree Blake Farenthold, sexual harassment allegations didn't push Frelinghuysen out the door. It was activism.

"Frelinghuysen won his last election by 19 points, but by this November, his race had been called a tossup," Elizabeth Juviler, a co-executive director of NJ 11th for Change, told AlterNet. "That was the power of people's voices in a classically democratic process.  People spoke up, they were heard, and our institutions and government are changing as a result. It's a shame that Frelinghuysen refused to hear our voices until it was too late for him." 

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The group started in 2016, and in January 2017, Fridays Without Frelinghuysen, as their visits to his office became known, gained the group so much notoriety that one of Juviler's fellow co-directors, Saily Avelenda, lost her job. Frelinghuysen himself sent an article about the group to the board of the bank where she was senior vice president and assistant general counsel. On the back, he wrote, "One of the ringleaders works at your bank!” Despite this setback, Avelenda told local paper the Morristown Green that Monday's announcement was a win "for all those people who stood in the rain, the cold, the crazy heat, every Friday.”

Juviler spoke to AlterNet about her experiences as a new activist, and offered a few tips for sustainability and long-term success.

1. Have a clear mission and focus.

NJ 11th for Change's goal was to force Frelinghuysen to hold a town hall. 

Juviler says:

"I think the biggest tip is that we had a mission that was exciting and welcoming to a broad group of people, but laser-focused at the same time. We are nonpartisan. We are unaffiliated with any party, though eventually we were campaigning against Frelinghuysen.

"We have tried as hard as possible to maintain deeply supportive, friendly, forward-thinking culture within the group, particularly on our Facebook group, which is the main social hangout. There's no question we benefited from a targeted focus on congressional representation rather than getting too far off into any one issue. We were confident that so many other groups were active on issues and watching senators and involved with legislative policy within the state... that we could keep our tent wide and our path narrow."

2. Diversify your tactics.

While your mission should be crystal-clear, sometimes the methods you use to carry it out will have to change, and it's important to be flexible.

Juviler explains:

"In the beginning, Fridays [Without Frelinghuysen] provided a huge amount of energy and focus. People took time off work, issue groups gathered, civic groups gathered—but when it became clear that Rodney would never meet with us, and when his votes consistently betrayed his district's interests, we moved on to other activities."

3. Be hyper-local.

There's a reason the Tea Party's damage to our democracy has been so long-lasting. When Obama was in office, they didn't just direct their ire at the president, but at all of their representatives. Tea Party groups went to town hall meetings (although Frelinghuysen didn't give constituents that opportunity).

Juviler says:

"We started town teams in most of the towns within the district, and both teams carried out all kinds of activities like tabling at farmers markets and street fairs, having issue educational meetings at the library, etc. These hyper-local groups are able to speak to their neighbors about the things our neighbors most care about in a way that resonates, and we found this extremely effective...

"We were local, visible, persistent and effective opposition to his status quo of entitled representation."

4. Do your research and learn your representative's history.

It will help you better plan your strategy and fight back against attacks. Juviler says NJ 11th for Change did this, "and he didn't know how to handle it."

Juviler recalls the ethics complaints filed after Frelinghuysen got Saily Avelenda fired:

"[I]t was not only a terrible error in strategy, but pretty terrible period....He really expected we would fade away, and when we didn't, he'd already dismissed us, refused to meet with us in such silly public ways. And meanwhile, his voting record [showed he was] beholden to Paul Ryan in obvious ways [that] went against most of his constituents' desires."

5. Don't forget to celebrate the small victories.

Juviler recalls:

"One of the most amazing moments was at the end of March [2017], when the AHCA was due for a vote on a Friday, but before noon Frelinghuysen had announced that he could not support the bill. We turned our regular Friday meeting with his staff into a celebration. It was the first big sense that we regular people could together make a big difference on our government."

As for next steps, Juviler says despite Frelinghuysen's resignation, the group's plans remain largely the same. Until he's gone, they will continue to be "focused on educating constituents about Rodney's record and how it affects them."

"There is still a lot of bad policy coming out us from Washington," she continued, "and we will see how Republican candidates lineup, if they have been silent about the despicable things that are happening to New Jersey and the country or if they have a backbone."

The group is also looking toward the midterm elections. NJ 11th for Change is so far declining to endorse anyone in the primaries, but noted, "We already have an excellent field of candidates. We still are working to get an excellent representative into Congress from the 11th District, one who will advocate for us, be responsive, transparent, and accountable. One hurdle is behind us, but the goal still lies ahead."

Ilana Novick is an AlterNet contributing writer and production editor.