"The Crowded Halls of Power" Style Weekly (April 2015) by gayla mills
We were exercising our right to lobby our state senators. Or maybe we were trying to exorcize our demons. In any case, our motley crew was fueling up with coffee and doughnuts at the Sierra Club’s downtown office, where the groups opposing Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline were meeting. At the General Assembly, the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee was taking up two bills in the afternoon, and our job was to lobby the senators who would be voting for the bills once they came out of committee.
If I’d known what that really meant when I got up that morning, I might have just stayed in bed. For we didn’t know that there might not even be a vote, that the bills might die in committee that day. We didn’t know what time the committee would meet. We didn’t know that instead of meeting with our senators as scheduled in their plush offices with welcoming leather armchairs and couches, we’d be meeting with their gatekeepers in hallways and back offices. We didn’t know that the standard answer to any question would be, “The senator is still in the courts committee right now.”
I imagined how it was for the Dominion representatives and other powerful groups who dominated politics. They might be ushered into the offices, the door closed and refreshments offered. Or they might simply meet at some swank restaurant with linen tablecloths, where they casually offered the senators support in the upcoming election, box tickets to the best games, or other treats. There would be lots of smiles, no hard edges, no difficult getting-to-know-you questions. Everyone would be comfortable in their nice suits. They’d all be on the same page. As one representative told us, “We have a cozy relationship with Dominion, and we like it that way.”
We didn’t stand a chance.
I watched as a group of high-school students was brought into one senator’s office — a senator who didn’t have time to meet with us — to explain its cause. The students spent less than 10 minutes, but came out all smiles, eager as pups. Someone had listened to them.
What should I feel at the sight? Should I be buoyed by their enthusiasm? Charmed by their naiveté? Embittered by the thought that they were merely being duped? Saddened that someday they’d learn how things really worked?
And what about us, the 30 or so folks who came, most getting up at 5 a.m. to meet at 6 to drive two hours to the capital city? We’d been told to wear business casual, but only some people got the memo. Some wore No Pipeline T-shirts with jeans. Some of the younger ones dressed as you might expect from kids raised on a communal farm in Nelson County. One bear of a man sported a beard down to his navel and a fur-trimmed parka. A software developer in his 20s wore all black, like a hipster trying to look respectable. Some people just looked worn out, which was unsurprising given their year-long fight and counting in this battle. I overheard one woman in the hallway talking to a liaison, accusing the legislature of being in bed with Dominion. That was sufficiently effective that he wouldn’t even give her the senator’s business card. There were lots of No Pipeline buttons, even though the bills we were supporting weren’t about the pipeline, but about process, including making information available to the public when gas corporations used eminent domain to seize private land.
The high point of our meetings was with one of the liaisons. He had a folder with the bills that would be addressed in committee. He knew what they were about. He took notes. He told us that the tea party had joined us in supporting one proposal, the Freedom of Information Act bill, though not the other one. One of our team pressed the point, noting that this issue united environmentalists on the left with property-rights advocates on the right. The aide was surprised that the tea party hadn’t shown support for the second bill, and said he would call his contact to check on it. It was obvious that the Republican senator he worked for might be swayed by tea party support.
This bit of news felt bittersweet — the best we could hope for in our efforts was to find help from a group many of us abhorred. Strange bedfellows, as they say.
This was a messy bit of democracy, and I didn’t know how to grasp it. Democracy in action means everyone won’t be in lock step — it’s the nature of the beast. So you can’t expect everyone will present the best arguments, or wear the most appropriate clothes or share the same views. They bring their passion.
Despite my sense of hopelessness, this didn’t feel like it was China, either. I felt no fear. I felt no risk. It didn’t occur to me that my face might be caught on camera or that I might be tracked afterward. Maybe I’m the naive one. I spoke my mind freely, as did the people I was with. At the news briefing midmorning, the group’s leaders articulated the details of what we knew of the comfy connection between government and corporate interests — the dinners shared and the junkets offered. But we didn’t worry that these accusations would land us in jail.
Later that day, we found out the bills died in committee. The people we lobbied never even had a chance to vote on the issue. Instead, Dominion had its latest request sail through the legislature. I mailed my check to Dominion yesterday so I could keep my lights on. And I desperately wished for a sign that regular people still have a true role to play in our system of governance. S
Gayla Mills is a writer, musician and professor at Randolph-Macon College.