Just Because You're Lobbying Doesn't Make You a Lobbyist

What would you call a person who spends days on end going from one senator's office to another to push for a piece of legislation? If he's paid it's one thing. If he's a family member of a crime victim, it apparently comes down to politics.

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What would you call a person who spends days on end going from one senator's office to another to advocate for a piece of legislation? If he is paid by a company, you'd call him a lobbyist. If he's doing it out of passion, your response probably depends on whether or not you agree with him.

Families of children killed at Newtown are in Washington, D.C., this week, talking to members of the Senate to encourage them to vote in support of the package of new gun restrictions that will be considered next week. Politico reported on how they're hoping to change minds:

[T]he families have a rule against staff-only meetings: They won’t do them. They insist on sitting down with the senators themselves.

That rule is just one of the ways that the Newtown families, political novices just a few months ago, are proving to be savvy, effective advocates as they promote the gun legislation that has finally begun to move through the Senate. … With access to money and media, they’re using persistence, visibility — and, most all, their unique moral authority — to help prod Senate action. They also have their own lobbyists — several of them, in fact.

Politico outlines how the parents are working with various groups to set up meetings with senators, groups like Mike Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the centrist Democratic group The Third Way. But the headline for the article significantly shrinks the distance between the family members and the people paid to shepherd them around the Hill. "Newtown families: Victims turn lobbyists."

Some conservatives who presumably oppose new firearms restrictions quickly jumped on that blurred line:

Conservative filmmaker Pat Dollard wrote a blog post titled, "Newtown Families Using Their Dead Children as Political Props to Promote Gun-Control Propaganda."

Steve Yuhas, an AM radio talk show host in Southern California, tweeted:

The response sets up a weird dynamic. The widely loathed paid lobbyists who trawl the empty-halled office buildings on Capitol Hill are accepted, a necessary evil. The NRA alone spent nearly $3 million lobbying last year — an expense with which its supporters almost certainly see no problem. But once personal advocates do the same, it becomes somehow distasteful, somehow disparaging to their loved ones. It's a corollary to the "it's too soon to politicize" argument, but one that lasts in perpetuity. Trying to contact and convince Congress after the death of a loved one is beyond the pale; spending millions to do the same is fine. Hate the lobbying; love the lobbyist.

One Twitter user responded to the Dollard post as follows:

There's a group that would readily recognize that reaction: the families of September 11th victims. At our sister publication National Journal, Jill Lawrence offers lessons Newtown families could learn from those who lost loved ones at the World Trade Center.

Persistence and nerve are other essential ingredients of success. The gun families will need at least a few people willing to devote time and money (often from their own pockets) to keep their priorities front and center for months, even years. “The most important lesson is to never give up,” says Carie Lemack, who lost her mother, Judy Larocque, on 9/11 and who now heads the Homeland Security Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

One response those families got for their persistence came from Rush Limbaugh a few months before President Bush faced John Kerry in 2004.

Well, it turns out that a lot of these 9-11 family members are part of a political organization that is funded in part by Teresa Heinz-Kerry! Well, this stuff is incestuous! You know, these people are poisoned. They have literally been poisoned by their hate. They have been poisoned by their rage. It is unbelievable, the depths to which they will sink.

The right to petition the government, enshrined in the First Amendment, is harder than it looks. (Try getting a meeting with a senator some time.) Politico quotes one of the Newtown families' allies from Third Way. The families, he says, at first "were incredulous when they were told what was and wasn’t possible, but they have become sophisticated about it very quickly." They are not paid to lobby; they are on Capitol Hill out of conviction.

This weekend, the NRA is sponsoring a NASCAR race in Texas. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut has asked Fox not to air the race in his state, in order not to be seen as bolstering the organization at a time of sensitivity. Murphy's request is clearly political. But it also demonstrates the massive chasm between the advocacy of the NRA and the advocacy of the mothers of Sandy Hook victims. This weekend, NRA will run a four-hour commercial on network television to an audience of millions. The Newtown families will spend that time gearing up for another few days of trying to get an audience with a dozen. And every time they do, someone will almost certainly suggest that it's distasteful.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.