Carole Levine June 27, 2023
I am not sure just when I made my first trip to lobby on Capitol Hill, but I am sure I was an adult, at least in my late 20’s or early 30’s. I was passionate about “my” issues (women- and children-focused) and I figured I could convince any legislator to come around to my point of view. I learned quickly that as good a speaker as I am, and as convincing as I thought my points on our issues were, and as compelling as the personal stories that I, and my colleagues told, I could not slay every dragon! What I could do was make an impression and, perhaps, make a legislator or his/her aide think twice about their position on an issue. What I could do was cause a legislator or their aide to blush or glance away as I raised certain outcomes that their positions caused. I did the best I could. I still do.
This past week, my husband and I had the opportunity to see our years of advocacy and volunteer lobbying from a different perspective. As a Bar Mitzvah gift and an 8th grade graduation gift for our two oldest grandsons, Asa (13) and Joey (14), who also happen to be extremely close friends (one lives in Chicago and one in Evanston, IL) as well as first cousins, my husband, Marty, an I took them on their first trip to Washington, DC. Along with tasting the richness of the monuments and the museums, we told them we would make appointments in their Senate and Congressional offices, so they could discuss the issues of importance to them. They thought that would be “cool.”
It took a bit of pushing to get them to set aside their video games and talk about what three issues they wanted to discuss with Senators Durbin, Duckworth, and Congresswoman Schakowsky and Congressman Quigly or their aides. The first was clear for both – gun regulation. “I worry about this every time I see some kid walk into my school with a big backpack and I don’t know what’s in it.” said Asa. Their second issue was something that was part of Asa’s B-Mitzvah project – homelessness. And the third issue was something they both cared about a great deal – LGBTQ+ issues and rights. So, armed with this information, I was able to make appointments with aides in three offices and with Rep. Schakowsky who knows us well and is both Joey’s and our Congresswoman. All of these appointments were on our last day in DC and would have us crisscrossing from the Senate side of the Mall to the House side and back again (and again!). We would be able to make a strategic visit to the Capital Visitor Center and have lunch in the basement of one of the office buildings and get some pictures outside of the Supreme Court…But making these constituent visits would take up the entire day.
We managed in the prior two days, before the lobbying visits, to see some of the major monuments and memorials. Of course, we chose the hottest day we could, so we needed a stop to dip our toes in the WWII memorial pond leads to the Lincoln Memorial! We also managed to spend time at a few of the Smithsonian Museums (Air and Space Museum and Natural History Museum and the Outdoor Sculpture Garden). We learned the Metro system and we ate a lot of food. Teenage boys eat a lot…
If I said the boys were a bit nervous about our Hill visits, it would only be for the first one. The weather was the worst. It was rainy and grey and the predictions were for the rain to last until our final visit was over, late in the afternoon. We were early in arriving at the Hart Senate Office Building and made it through security with about 30 minutes to spare before our first appointment. So, we sat in the lobby of the building and made calls to confirm all of our appointments, showing the boys some of the “DC protocol” that is helpful when lobbying. Then, at the right time, we went up to Senator Durbin’s office where we were warmly greeted, and ushered into a huge conference room with a massive table. Asa and Joey sat together, near Fiona Flory, a Legislative Assistant. She was joined by a summer intern who was very focused on the boys, but silent throughout our 20 minute visit. Fiona explained that her areas were not exactly the three that the boys were interested in but she would do her best to answer their questions, and then convey their concerns to the right people and to Senator Durbin. And so they began…
Their questions and statements (some written on a yellow pad and some extemporaneous) started with gun regulation and how it felt to sit through drills where they felt like they were waiting to be shot. Joey raised the question of whether those who opposed gun regulation had children that they cared about. Fiona noted that it was a very good point. Asa moved on to discuss the issue of homelessness and his experience with that topic for his B-Mitzvah project. He pushed hard for what could be done from a federal level to help. When Fiona asked him if he understood the difference between “equality” and “equity” he smiled and said: “Equality is when everyone gets the same thing, but equity is when you get what you really need.” Clearly, Fiona was impressed! The final topic was LGBTQ+ rights and Joey took the lead here, asking what was being done to the many new threats to the rights of people, especially children, to live their lives as they wish. A discussion about Senator Durbin’s positions on these issues followed. All in all, it was an impressive conversation with two concerned, thoughtful, well-prepared teens. I think that Fiona was impressed as was her intern. And the boys’ grandparents were very proud!
What followed was a race in the rain to the Capitol Visitor Center, lunch and then a meeting with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky on the House side of the Capitol. Jan Schakowsky is our Congresswoman as well as Joey’s so she knows us and she had some issues to share with Marty and me that delayed the boy’s discussion a few minutes. They felt this was rude since this was their time with her!
But what ensued was a similar discussion. Jan has a trans grandchild and was very sympathetic to their concerns on LGBTQ+ issues. This was a much longer visit than the first one! We hugged and took pictures and then ran in the rain back to the Hart Senate Office Building on the other side of the Capitol.
I think if you ask the boys, the meeting in Senator Duckworth’s office with Legislative Correspondent Catelyn Caldwell may have been their favorite. We were crowded into a tiny meeting room, but Catelyn gave them her full attention and made them feel very important. She listened carefully to everything they said, talked about the Senator’s positions and experience with the issues, as well as her own. She was an outstanding aide for the boys to meet with and share their concerns. She told them to email her and that it might take time, but she would get back to them! This is not the norm in my lobbying experience. My grandsons were impressive, and so was Catelyn! This was a very good visit.
One more to go! It was still raining and we made our way back across the Capitol grounds to House side to Congressman Mike Quigley’s office (Asa’s Congressman) to meet with Legislative Assistant Kody Keckler. This meeting took place at a table in the outer office as people checked in and out of the office. But the boys were now seasoned lobbyists. They knew their stuff and Kody seemed very tuned in to them as well. They smoothly moved through their issues from gun regulation to homelessness. At one point in that conversation, Joey pointed out to Kody, “You really need to consider the difference between equality and equity when you look at solutions”! I guess everyone had been paying attention to earlier conversations. And when the conversation turned to LGBTQ+ rights, Kody, who is part of that community, was right with the boys on those issues, and able to give them Congressman’s Quigley’s positions with ease. Another good visit.
And as we left the Rayburn House Office Building that afternoon, the sun finally came out. Asa and Joey were clearly very tired, but also feeling very pleased with what they had accomplished and learned about their ability to “speak truth to power.” They had come to the seat of government with their concerns and been able to meet with their elected officials and those who work with them and present their positions. They were 13 and 14 years old and they were respected and listened to. Maybe they learned a bit about their government. They certainly made their grandparents very proud.