Confined to Zoom no more, activists return to state Capitol to hold lawmakers to account

By: and - April 20, 2021 2:55 pm

(Capital-Star photo by Elizabeth Hardison)

Nature is healing.

After being shut out for much of the last year, activists of all stripes are returning to the stately marble steps and gilded interior of the Pennsylvania Capitol.

More than 50 child sex abuse survivors and their advocates rallied outside the Capitol on Monday, calling on state Senate leaders to hold a vote on a measure granting them two years to revive old abuse cases in court. 

Supporters of marijuana legalization then took their turn on Tuesday, when they marked April 20, a folk holiday celebrating marijuana, with a march to the Capitol steps. 

Tents with drying hemp plants were pitched outside the building while pro-marijuana flags fluttered from the balcony of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s office — despite being recently banned under state law. A crowd of more than 150 activists in bright green t-shirts milled about the steps with signs.

“We’ve had some real missed opportunities this year,” said Cathie Cashman, a longtime advocate for marijuana legalization who has participated in three 4/20 events in Harrisburg. “There’s so much we miss without face-to-face [lobbying.]”

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The sudden resurgence of citizen-led rallies follows more than a year of unprecedented shutdowns of the Capitol in Harrisburg. The building was closed to the public twice in the last year due to COVID-19, and then fortified this winter following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington D.C. 

It’s been open to visitors since March 22, but the Department of General Services isn’t yet permitting large indoor events. 

The pandemic restrictions didn’t totally bar activists from the seat of state government. Protesters still gathered at the Capitol throughout 2020 to oppose Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic mitigation orders, protest police violence, and to show support for former President Donald Trump’s conspiratorial “Stop the Steal” campaign.

But most of these events did not occur on session days, when the Capitol is full of lawmakers and lobbyists who hope to influence them. 

The Capitol’s typical open-door policy allows citizens to attend rallies, knock on lawmakers’ doors, and sit in galleries to watch proceedings in the House and Senate. 

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But most advocacy groups curtailed their in-person activism last year, turning instead to Zoom or phone-banking campaigns.  

A small number of groups have entered the building to personally push lawmakers to support their causes, such as good-government reformers March on Harrisburg or Trump supporters who were trying to overturn the 2020 election results.

Micheal Pollack, executive director of March on Harrisburg, was even arrested in a protest at House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff’s, R-Centre, Capitol office last September, where he was pushing for a bill banning gifts to legislators.

Pollack, who was back at the Capitol Tuesday to keep up the pressure for the proposal, told the Capital-Star that in-person advocacy was more effective.

“Lobbying over Zoom is very difficult,” Pollack said. “Legislators are able to avoid eye contact, number one. They are also able to orchestrate the conversation in a way so their staff can take the questions.”

In-person events such as the one last fall where he was arrested, Pollack added, also force lawmakers to take responsibility for their positions.

“Corruption, what it does, is it allows politicians to hide with lobbyists, with donors, with party bosses, with special interests, and hide from the public,” Pollack said. “By coming in here, by forcing that face-to-face encounter with legislators, it makes them extra responsible to us. It pulls them out of the shadows.”

But while some had no issue braving the Capitol amid COVID-19, other advocates faced more barriers to in-person visits. 

Eileen Miller has been lobbying the General Assembly to pass tougher laws on distracted drivers since a truck driver using his phone behind the wheel struck and killed her son in 2010.

After all the work, her proposal received its first floor vote ever in early 2020, but was heavily edited by an amendment. Then, as the coronavirus swept the world, her bill quietly died in the Senate, never receiving another vote.

“COVID is really the number one priority, certainly not my bill,” Miller told the Capital-Star.

The calculus for her side job of influencing lawmakers also changed. Miller’s husband has ALS and uses a wheelchair, so she cares for him. She also tries to limit their exposure to COVID-19.

That complicated her usual strategy of heading to Harrisburg for a day of in-person meetings and spontaneous hallway conversations.

“I can’t just pop in and sit in the Capitol,” Miller said.

Her hesitance isn’t unique. Other advocacy groups have also said they’ll wait a little while longer to ramp up their face-to-face operations.

Survivors of child sex abuse, for instance, were a visible fixture in the Capitol when lawmakers were debating statute of limitations reforms in 2018 and 2019. 

They’ve used phone calls and emails to lobby lawmakers to support bills this year, but are mostly holding off on individual, in-person meetings until more people are vaccinated, advocate Marci Hamilton said. 

She said survivors showed a united front with their outdoor rally on Monday. With their persistent phone calls and emails, “there’s still a lot of contact … [to] show that [survivors] aren’t going away,” Hamilton said. 

There’s some social awkwardness to be expected as advocates and legislators shake off a year of social seclusion. For example, Pollack asks himself if a handshake is still a necessary part of a greeting.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have risen steadily throughout the month of April. But the Wolf administration has been reluctant to impose new shutdown restrictions, and is urging the public to help counter transmission by getting vaccinated. 

But if you can do it safely, Pollack said, now is the time to remind lawmakers who they’re accountable to: the public.

“I’d highly recommend that everyone come here, because the people of Pennsylvania need to interact with their government,” he said.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.

Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.