Political News

Giving Others a Voice in Congress, One Hand-Delivered Letter at a Time

WASHINGTON — After President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Debbie Matties felt helpless.

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks
, New York Times

WASHINGTON — After President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Debbie Matties felt helpless.

The next day she attended the Women’s March, and reflected on her past work volunteering on Democratic campaigns. But Matties, a Washington resident with little say in Congress, felt left out of the democratic process.

So she joined a Facebook group of other disillusioned liberals with an eye toward constituency advocacy — if their voices could not be heard, at least they could amplify others across the country.

“We started contacting friends and family who don’t live in the District of Columbia saying: ‘Hey, I live really close to the Capitol. Send me a letter by email and I’ll print it at my house and bring it up myself because I just feel so frustrated and I don’t know what to do with myself,'” Matties said.

That ragtag group of volunteers would soon become Herd on the Hill, an organization with more than 300 members who have spent their lunch breaks and after-work hours delivering more than 12,000 letters to congressional offices on behalf of constituents seeking to inject a human element into the issues roiling the country.

“It can’t be more grass roots,” said Matties, now the president of the coalition.

Matties was one of many liberals whose frustration over the 2016 presidential election inspired such efforts. Since then, several Silicon Valley-bred software engineers and tech entrepreneurs have sought to use their skills to counter the Trump administration. Web designer Jason Putorti helped created Resistbot, which allows users’ Twitter posts and texts to be turned into emails, faxes or letters that can be delivered in person. And the scientist-coder team of Rebecca Kaufman and Nick O’Neill founded 5Calls, which provides contact information and scripts that can be used when calling congressional offices.

While urging from nonprofits to call or email legislators is not new, Herd on the Hill offers a more accessible method, blending digital and analog: Anyone in the country can type a message into a form on the website and in minutes have it printed out at the office of one of the volunteers for delivery. It is faster than voters sending in snail mail themselves (which can take weeks as security inspects it) and can feel more satisfying and concrete than sending an email or leaving a voicemail message in the void.

“My instinct as a software person is with any repeatable task, how can we automate it?” said Will Friedman, who coded the website, called Stamps Licked, where users create the letters delivered by Herd on the Hill. “But sometimes, it’s like, wait, we have volunteers who want to do something, and it might not always be best to automate.”

On a recent Thursday afternoon, a little over a dozen Herd on the Hill volunteers made up of retired teachers, young professionals and families with small children gathered at the Hart Senate Office Building to prepare their door-to-door strategy for delivering about 110 letters throughout Capitol Hill’s sprawling system of offices. Chatter before the afternoon’s mission was pleasant — more book club than resistance group.

“Half the struggle is just figuring out the buildings,” said Erin Irby, a volunteer who works at a nearby coffee shop.

Matties and the group’s operations director, Karen Williams, went through a game plan: Have an elevator pitch ready for the interns helming the front offices. Make sure to get a photo outside the office near the lawmakers’ wall plaque to post on social media. Since most of the letters were about migrant family separations and Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, try to ask for the business card of the legislative aide in charge of those topics.

“What if the office is closed?” one volunteer asked. “You mean Rand Paul?” Matties quipped back about the Republican senator from Kentucky, whose office is locked and accessible only by calling the front desk.

But are the group’s old-school methods effective? Not always, according to Brad Fitch, president of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that helps lawmakers and their aides operate more effectively. He said that electronic messages allow offices to most easily tally up where voters stand on specific issues for weekly reports.

Still, Fitch said the foundation’s surveys show that both constituents and office staffs are generally unhappy about email as the dominant form of communication, given its impersonal and often one-sided nature. And many messages from constituents, no matter the format, are unlikely to change their representatives’ minds, he said.

“You could get a million messages into John McCain’s office regarding issues of war and peace,” Fitch said. “Good luck with that. He’s got some pretty firm positions.”

But “niche issues are 95 percent” of what members of Congress handle, Fitch said, and in those instances, a unique, hand-delivered note could lead to a moving story being told on the Senate floor that propels substantive change. And on even bigger political debates, Matties said that personal stories have the power to sway legislators, a belief that drives the volunteers.

“The health care bill, the tax bill, the immigration issue,” Matties said. “There are personal stories there that can make an impact in ways that are different from other issues.”

“I mean, the Russia investigation is obviously important for our country,” she added, “but there aren’t many Americans who have a personal story to tell about the investigation.”

The stories delivered present a physical manifestation, sometimes stacks high, of frustration or hope that seems to resonate with full-time staff members on Capitol Hill.

“This is how we get the pulse of our constituents and learn the things we need to fight the hardest on,” Alex Perez, a staff assistant to Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said after the volunteers dropped off a couple of letters, adding that he sees them sometimes as many as three times a week.

And although Herd on the Hill leans left, some Republican offices, which can receive the most feedback on particularly charged issues as the party in power, also understand the benefit of the hand-delivered letters.

It’s a “good gauge” of where voters stand “whenever they’re not calling in and sending through Herd on the Hill,” Jasmine Moody, a staff assistant at the office of Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said with letters in hand. Since Herd on the Hill started, there have been a few hiccups along the way. Matties said some office staff members have been reluctant to accept the at-times cumbersome bundles of hand-delivered letters for their weekly reports. Others have been flat-out rude, Matties said, considering the deliveries an intrusion.

But Irby and other volunteers said during their recent lunchtime delivery that they get to see firsthand how much constituents value the face time the group has with the offices. During the ebbs and flows of the news cycle in the last year and half, there have been a number of topics — the confirmation of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Trump’s travel ban on certain Muslim-majority countries, the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act — that have overwhelmed the volunteers with thousands of letters.

“There were some days where our printer couldn’t handle the volume,” Matties said. “At the time I was so upset, saying, ‘We need to send these letters!’ But everyone kept saying, ‘This is a great problem to have.'”

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