By Tom Kiskin Originally Appeared on The Ventura County Star
Minutes after a political activist posted U.S. Rep. Steve Knight’s cellphone number on Facebook, Sam Kaeser’s fingers danced.
“No AHVA,” the 60-year-old Democrat from Simi Valley texted the Republican congressman, then firing off a second message. “Oops — no AHCA! Stupid autocorrect.”
She sat with her cellphone and computer tablet on a Thursday in March, feeling empowered. This was her chance to be heard, her opportunity to plunge into the flood that in the months since Donald Trump’s election let loose millions of emails, phone calls and Facebook comments to the senators and congress members who represent Ventura County.
Her fingers danced again and again, 27 tangos in more than a month, some completing a thought from a text sent a moment before. One of the flurries was aimed at what she thought would be Knight’s upcoming vote on the original version of the American Health Care Act and his opposition to the Obamacare program it was designed to replace.
“You voted Party over Constituents,” she typed. “I will do everything in my power to see you don’t get re-elected in 2018.”
Just to voice the thoughts felt good. She didn’t expect an answer, didn’t know if her message would even reach Knight. A day after she started messaging, Knight answered. She felt a flash of satisfaction. Until she read the words.
“R u crazy? The bill’s been pulled,” he texted, referring to an early version of the AHCA. An amended version of the bill was approved by the House on Thursday, with Knight voting for it.
Two million emails. 140,000 phone calls. 250,000 petitions, faxes and postcards.
That’s what constituents have sent Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein since Nov. 8, 2016. It’s more than double the input received over the same time a year earlier.
The river of emails that greeted Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat who took office on Jan. 3, reached more than 854,000 messages through April. She received more than 30,000 postcards about the women’s marches that followed the president’s inauguration.
The emails, phone calls and letters flowing to U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, more than doubled from last year. The almost 33,000 messages received from January to March included a string of emails from a Republican in Port Hueneme pushing the congresswoman to be more open to opposing views.
And then there’s Knight. The former state senator who lives in Palmdale was elected to represent a district including Simi Valley in 2014. As the only Republican representing a swath of Ventura County in D.C., he has emerged as a lightning rod in the electric storm brought by Trump’s election.
Protesters march outside his Simi Valley office. They hand deliver petitions, use computer programs like Resistbot to zip complaints to the office and send cyber clusters of emails.
A spokesman for Knight said it’s difficult to calculate the exact number of messages received by constituents. The office has sent out 8,000 responses since Jan. 1, a rise of about 65 percent over a year ago.
They tweet. They post on Facebook. At least a few send texts to Knight on his personal cell like the correspondence with Kaeser that the congressman acknowledged in an awkward, can’t-look-away confrontation with her at a Simi Valley town hall.
“You actually asked if I was crazy,” she said, accusing him of being snarky, drawing cheers of support in an auditorium packed with Democrats.
He acknowledged the cellphone message exchange and said he apologized for the “crazy” comment. Kaeser later said he texted “I guess that was insensitive of me.”
“I still have your texts,” the congressman said in the town hall, noting he gives out his personal cell number routinely — to constituents, media and others.
Love ’em or hate ’em
The give-and-take ping-pongs everywhere.
Dale Thomas, a Republican involved in politics since the days of Barry Goldwater, leads a Westlake Village political club that sent 200 postcards of support to the president. She emails federal and state officials every week with complaints about California’s gas tax, the sanctuary movement and health care.
She’s not sure her efforts change votes. But her days opening mail for Texas Congressman Joe Pool in the 1960s makes her think lawmakers at least pay attention to who’s complaining about what issue.
“It may not change their minds but it makes my mind feel a whole lot better,” she said.
The protesters chanting on the sidewalk in front of Knight’s Simi office on a Friday in April employed diverse strategies. Lee Ann Holland of Newbury Park took her daughter, who has autism and epilepsy, to Brownley’s office to punctuate concern over health care legislation.
Tammy Royce of Ventura carried signs repurposed from earlier protests. She uses a 5 Calls app that connects her automatically to legislators offices, providing scripts for comments on issues ranging from border searches to offshore oil drilling.
“I’m making 3 to 12 phone calls a day,” Royce said, noting she sends written messages at the same pace.
Technology and apps explain why people flood legislators with messages at unprecedented levels. The problem is people on the receiving end understand how the apps work too.
“Stuff that is generated that way doesn’t get as much attention,” said Sean Q. Kelly, political science chair at CSU Channel Islands. “The heartfelt letter is still sort of the one more likely to get a response.”
Kelly links the torrent of emails and phone calls to conflicts ignited by Trump, some revealed in headlines, others in the president’s parade of tweets. Thomas contends the amplified feedback mirrors the country’s growing divide.
“We are so much more polarized as a country,” said Thomas, noting there is no middle ground in how people view their elected officials, Republican or Democrat. “We either love what they’re doing or we hate them.”
A different way to communicate
Deborah Baber Savalla opened the door to her Port Hueneme home on a Tuesday afternoon wearing American flag earrings and a Trump/Pence T-shirt.
Baber Savalla, once a vice president for Macmillan Publishers, wears gear supporting the new president virtually every day, has since July. It’s her way to tell others who support the president it’s OK to show it.
She wore a Trump jacket to a February town hall organized by Brownley and brimming with people angry at the new president and his threats to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
When she stood and asked Brownley about representing constituents with opposing views, she was shouted down by the crowd. It was loud enough that a Democrat rushed to hug her in a show of support.
“It felt hurtful,” she said of the jeers, noting the town hall felt more rally than forum. “It felt frustrating. It felt bewildering.”
It was also a beginning. Baber Savalla, a former Democrat who voted for Barack Obama in 2008, sent an email to Brownley’s chief of staff. She suggested the congresswoman sponsor another town hall focused on health care, this one aimed at bringing opposing views together.
In Baber Savalla’s proposal, political slogans on signs or clothing would not be allowed in the town hall. Charged terminology like Obamacare would go too. The town hall’s format would be planned by a panel representing diverse political views. Brownley and someone with opposing views would present each other’s arguments.
“The value of that is to try and hear what the other side is saying,” Baber Savalla said. “I think elected officials too often are pursuing their points of view to the exclusion of all others.”
She’s swapping emails with Brownley’s staff and offered to meet the congresswoman locally or in D.C. She asked others to help her reach Brownley, even approached supporters of the congresswoman at a Planned Parenthood rally.
She’s not giving up but called the responses from the congresswoman’s office “somewhat standard fare.”
“It feeds the notion of Brownley not really caring about the 40 percent who didn’t vote for her,” she said.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Brownley said she knew of Baber Savalla’s proposal. She said she is given weekly, sometimes daily, reports on emails and phone calls from people living in her district. She said she wants to hear from people who share her views and those who don’t.
“It gives me clear perspective on a variety of issues,” she said, then tapping her fingers to emphasize the words she uses as a slogan. “My constituents are my boss, period.”
Brownley expressed wariness about Baber Savalla’s vision of a town hall.
“It’s not my role to control who is going to speak to me and who is not,” she said. “I’m not in the business of trying to control what people’s opinions are. If I were doing that, I don’t think I would be doing my job correctly.”
Gauging political mortality
Elected officials say they listen to everyone. Matt Mendez, a professor at CSU Channel Islands, think they’re attuned more closely to some than others. He led research that studied how state legislators responded to immigrants in the country illegally.
They responded but not as often as they did with citizens.
“Citizens vote. That’s sort of what we see as the biggest driver,” he said, suggesting many elected officials routinely check incoming messages with voter registration records.
Many of the people flooding congressional offices with complaints are never going to vote for the people they’re trying to influence. Mendez rejects the notion their complaints are ignored, saying communication is weighed carefully, especially in districts targeted in a future election by the party not in power.
Politicians assess crowds at town halls and the flow of phone calls and emails as a way to measure how well opposing forces are organized, said Herb Gooch, political science professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
“It reminds you, ‘Oops, I could be taken out,'” he said.
She won’t stop
Knight declined several requests for an interview. Instead he offered a statement that emphasized the importance of listening to constituents. He said he encouraged people to share input, participate in town halls and even to text him on his personal cell.
“I just ask that people can keep in mind,” he said, “that when individuals continue to repeat inquiries or attempt to disrupt me and my staff rather than have a discussion, it makes it difficult to provide others with the quality of service they deserve.”
When Kaeser stood up in the town hall to confront the congressman about the tone of his text responses, it was the first time she had spoken into a microphone in her life.
Once a customer service specialist in an insurance firm, she was never an activist, never even called a politician to complain. Trump’s election changed that. She joined a local Democratic club. She marched in a Tax Day protest. She wrote emails to Knight’s office about health care, receiving what she considered generic responses.
The texts felt different, more personal, more direct. She focused on health care, venues for a town hall and partisanship.
A handful of her forays drew answers.
“You seem to have a big problem with me so maybe it’s best that we don’t text on my personal phone,” Knight said in one text.
That exchange was rehashed in the town hall as the crowd tittered. Kaeser told him she has no plans to curb her messages in a pledge repeated on the patio of her Simi Valley home.
“Because,” she said, “he’s my congressman.”
Mass of messages
U.S. senators and representatives report a flood in communication from constituents since Donald Trump’s election.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.: 2 million emails, 140,000 phone calls and 250,000 written messages since election day.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.: 854,000 emails since Jan. 3, 74,000 phone calls and 65,000 letters including more than 30,000 postcards about the women’s march after the president’s inauguration.
Rep. Steve Knight, R-Lancaster: 8,000 response letters sent to constituents since Jan. 1.
Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-Santa Barbara: 34,222 emails from January through March, 4,478 phone calls and 1,796 letters, faxes and postcards.
Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village: Nearly 33,000 messages from January through March including emails, phone calls and letters.