One day every summer, ordinary citizens overrun the basement of the statehouse. Stickers, buttons and t-shirts proclaim the issues they’re passionate about, the ideas worth meandering through Trenton’s streets for, parallel parking on a side street faraway, running out to re-feed the meter every two hours.
The state legislators, they’re here too. And they listen.
I’ve never been more excited about grassroots activism until today. Granted, I don’t know how it works inside the Big House on the Beltway, but it sure works in Trenton, in a powerful way.
The partisan divide in this country might be historically wide, but you couldn’t tell that based on the conversations I overheard between politicians and their constituents.
It was a give and take. People didn’t win all the battles, but they chipped away. If President Trump (who ran as a far-right candidate), can be persuaded to change his mind on climate change and the Paris Agreement, anything is possible with these politicians.
They planted seeds! Supporters of the Sierra Club warned one Republican assemblyman how dangerous it would be for firefighters to quell forest burns in the Pinelands, if a flammable gas pipeline ran through it. Another conservative assemblywoman thanked a rep from Clean Water Action for letting her know that a new bill on the table, one she initially thought was “harmless”, effectively weakened ethics laws to approve a pending pipeline.
What was amazing was, while yes, most groups had their full-time paid “lobbyists” or non-profit directors, leading the discussion, constituents spoke up. And the legislators listened. They debated. They changed each other’s minds. It was the most human, most democratic thing I’ve seen in a long time. It wasn’t just public comment, one side yelling at the other, the cold echo of microphones between them, a long formal line of people fidgeting to speak. It was informative, conversational and at times, a compassionate but fragile human compromise.
So this is how lobbying in a democracy is supposed to work. It’s for the public. It’s been for us this whole time.