These DC residents want to channel your voice

Ann Griffith, right, sorts messages for delivery in the Hart Senate Office Building. Herd on the Hill Operations Director Karen Williams is at left. Photo: Liz Ruskin

Alaskans sometimes feel like they don’t have enough say in policies that shape their surroundings. But there are Americans with literally no say in the decisions of Congress. One group of D.C. residents sidles up to power by amplifying the voices of others, and one day last week they used a letter from Juneau as a ticket in.

Like a lot of people on the left, Ann Griffith was dismayed by the election of Donald Trump and driven to stay politically active. She’s a new American – “I’m actually Welsh. That’s the accent ” – and has all the rights of other citizens.

Except Griffith lives in the District of Columbia, so she has no U.S. Senator, and only a non-voting delegate in the House.

“I am within walking distance of all the seats of power, so I feel really compelled to do something,” she said.

So here she is at the U.S. Capitol, a retired teacher criss-crossing congressional office buildings, hand-delivering letters.

“By now I’ve been here dozens of times but I still get lost,” she admitted.

She was joined last week by an Army veteran named Elizabeth Banger. At Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office, they unfurled a very large letter, from a Juneau-based group called the Healthy Alaskans Coalition.

“We’re here with Herd on the Hill,” Banger explained to Murkowski’s receptionist. “We are a group of D.C. residents. Since we don’t have elected representatives of our own we deliver constituent letters.”

Herd on the Hill is a politically motivated message delivery service for progressives. They are proxies, leveraging a power Alaskans have enjoyed since statehood: Representation.

Congress members tend to ignore messages from people outside their districts. So Herd on the Hill networks with liberal groups to get letters from people who are someone’s constituents.  (If there’s an equivalent service for conservatives, they aren’t aware of it.)

They often paraphrase the messages they bring, to whoever receives them at a congressional office, for added emphasis. Sometimes they get to engage with a chief of staff, or a senator even.

“We realize as we go around the offices, it’s the fact that we’re carrying letters from constituents, that have the constituents address and zip code on it, that’s what opens the door for us, to go in and share the voice,” Griffith said.

Sometimes they’ll get a stray conservative message. Herd Operations Director Karen Williams said they got a few urging senators to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, for instance. Williams said a Herder can decline a letter.

“There’s some of us that feel, from a First Amendment standpoint, that even if we disagree with the issue, we will deliver them,” Williams said.

You might wonder, why would I bother sending messages to Herd when I can just write or call my Congress member directly? Congressional staffers say email is an excellent way to register an opinion. But constituents aren’t always satisfied with email.

“Herd on the Hill is offering a chance for us to have a person and a face go into an office when we can’t,” said Karla Hart, a politically active Juneau resident.

Hart is a member of the Healthy Alaskans Coalition that sent the poster-sized letter to Murkowski. (They’re requesting a town hall next month.) Hart wanted to send the poster itself, to show that it had dozens of signatures, scrawled in blue magic marker. And Hart said mailing wasn’t an option.

“All of the guidance that I’ve seen says don’t mail physical things to Congress because they take forever to get there,” Hart said.

Congressional offices have signs on their doors saying they don’t accept anything in a sealed envelope. That followed the 2001 anthrax attacks. Among the targets were offices in the Hart Building. Ever since, mail to the Capitol goes through an off-site security screening and sometimes arrives weeks late.

Hart reaches out to the the congressional delegation in myriad ways. Sometimes she calls.

She’s not the only one. Before big votes, like the Kavanaugh confirmation, Murkowski’s phone lines were inundated. Alaskans complained of endless busy signals and full voicemail.

Herd on the Hill volunteers are especially proud of the service they provide on days like that. Griffith said they delivered hundreds of constituent messages to Murkowski’s office about Kavanaugh in the days before the vote.

“In the end though, she did vote against him, didn’t she?” Griffith said.  “Because that was the one place where we thought maybe the letters had helped to make a difference.”

Murkowski did come out against Kavanaugh (She voted “no,” but withdrew her vote as a courtesy to a colleague who wasn’t present, a process known as “vote pairing.”)

But did the letters Herd on the Hill delivered make a difference? They did add to the constituent outpouring that flooded Murkowski’s office. But scores of Alaskans flew to Washington to lobby Murkowski in person ahead of that vote.

Murkowski didn’t vote to confirm. Kavanaugh prevailed anyway.

Still, Griffith likes to think Herd on the Hill helped, even in a small way, to keep one Republican senator out of the “yes” column.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

Previous articleLawmakers want to know more about economic impact of state budget proposal
Next articleVeterans’ health