On January 31, I stopped by a Rally+Rise lecture on lobbying in New York State, featuring Alessandra Biaggi, the former deputy national-operations director for Hillary for America. Like many liberal Americans, I'd spent the last week absorbing every article, rereading the Constitution, and racing to one march/protest/rally after another.
I went to the event expecting some clear call to action for people like me — people who wanted to give those who are silent or supportive of Donald Trump a piece of their mind. I'd already called our senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats, but it had become the epitome of preaching to the choir.
I live in New York: the last time the state went red was for Reagan in 1984, and we've welcomed Dems in the governor's seat for the past decade. I was, like many of us, under the naïve assumption that New York was "safe" and our only fight was at the federal level (we still have many, many fights ahead). I was wrong.
I did leave the night with clear next steps, but it wasn't what I'd expected. Here are my top three takeaways, complete with calls to action.
1. Know your local representative. Really know them.
Contacting representatives when you're not a constituent is useless, as Emily Ellsworth pointed out in Lenny a few months back. Their primary concern is reelection, and you don't factor in. Instead, focus on your state. And each state has its own statehouse with its own byzantine dynamics, which can make the "Democrat" or "Republican" label less reliable than you might think.
In New York, we have the IDC. The IDC is the Independent Democratic Conference, founded in 2011 as a "bipartisan governing coalition" with Senate Republicans. In short, it's Democrats in the state of New York who vote like Republicans — eight of them, to be exact. (This excludes former member Malcolm Smith, who is currently incarcerated for bribing Republican county leaders to secure his spot as a Republican nominee on the New York City mayoral ticket despite his being a registered Democrat.)
Let's do that math. New York has a 63-seat senate: 31 Republicans, 32 Dems. If we re-tally with IDC's voting tendencies: 39 Republicans, 24 Democrats. Here's the full list of NY IDC members. It's no wonder that IDC awareness has increased rapidly post-election, with the New York Times giving it ample attention and constituents mobilizing with sites like noIDCny.org.
The takeaway? Stop voting D down the ballot and start looking into who will represent you in a vote.
2. State constitutions are totally bonkers.
When the Supreme Court rules on something, like, for instance, Roe v. Wade, it passes at a federal level, which means any state-by-state laws fall by the wayside. But it doesn't mean elected officials go back and change the legislation at a state level.
We've all seen listicles along the lines of "The 15 Wackiest Laws Still in the [Insert State] Constitution." But this banana bread goes beyond "You can't wear a fake mustache that causes laughter in church" (Alabama) and "A woman isn't allowed to cut her own hair without her husband's permission" (Michigan — big win). A lot of these laws are horrific and, by today's definition, unconstitutional. For instance, Lawrence v. Texas struck down the existing Texas law making sodomy illegal. The old law still sits in Texas's books; it just can't be enforced, because it's been deemed unconstitutional.
Our move? Read your state's constitution. New York's is 45 pages (of nine-point font). The webpage for California's looks like it was made in 1994. Oregon's includes a section on the appointment of a "state printer." And so on. Log the issues and articles you want to protect in the increasingly likely scenario that they're overturned at the federal level. Start a campaign to secure progress at the state level.
3. State constitutions matter now more than ever.
Let's loop back to Roe v. Wade, the second-best thing to come out of 1973 (pro-choice for life, but Vietnam was a huge fucking mistake). Trump-Pence, Our Twisted Dark Nightmare, will likely aim to overturn it, which doesn't mean abortion is necessarily illegal; it means the law goes back to the states — and wherever your state stands, goes.
New York hasn't updated its law since 1970. To be fair, when it was instated it was the most permissive abortion law in the country and New York established its reputation as a safe haven for women who needed reproductive resources. However, 1970 predates Roe v. Wade, and as a result, our state law is more restrictive than the federal law.
The Reproductive Health Act has been proposed time and time again, but it's never passed the state assembly and senate. It's been reintroduced in 2017, has gone through committee, and a vote is being scheduled. That means we still have time. If this issue matters to you, here's what you should do:
- Look up who your rep is. If you don't already know, there's no shame in looking. Then, find where they historically stand on passing the RHA.
- Call your local electeds. Write. Wait in their office lobby. If they're a co-sponsor (like my rep, Velmanette Montgomery), write to thank them and confirm your support. If they're in opposition or silent on the issue, do the same thing, but let them know you're an invested constituent who urges them to vote in favor.
- Get grizzly. Be the opposition. Again, most elected officials are concerned with one thing: reelection. And many run unopposed. So if you see your rep slacking, threaten to primary them (support a new candidate to run against them).
No matter your state or the state your families reside in, there are battles to be won. Battles we can win. If you're not a New Yorker, find your state's constitution and Electeds online. You can still call and write and, if need be, challenge their reelection. Hell, run yourself if you meet this very loose list of qualifications. Hitting the streets always has value, but to hit this administration where it hurts, we have to start with our own states and work our way up. Remember, your Electeds work for you.
Lizzie Harris is an American poet and the author of Stop Wanting (CSU Poetry, 2014). Follow her at @heylizzieharris.