Sacramento Sam Speaks on Sholes, Single-Payer, and Screamers


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Man yelling into the phone

Artist's conception of constituent complaining about the prospective failure to pass a single-payer health care bill. (Source: http://mymajicdc.com/lifestyle/mymajic/slice-of-life-examples-of-workplace-rudeness/)

A correspondent self-named Sacramento Sam sent in a long and well-spoken comment this afternoon in reply to the story I wrote last week taking on Elizabeth Sholes of Catholic Church Impact.  He notes that he wants to retain his anonymity, but as an administrator of this site I’m able to see his e-mail address and IP Address.  Others with access similar to mine could do so as well, so to serve his best interests I’ve decided to transfer his comment into a separate post, delete the original comment from our database without saving a copy so that neither I nor anyone else will be able to look up his identity, and respond to him here.  (I’ve already forgotten his name, by the way; it something like Luke Aurrea.  And yes, that is just a joke.)  I’ve changed nothing except for formatting links and correcting a typo.  Here’s “Sam”:

As single-payer supporter, I’m glad to see an intelligent discussion of SB 810 here.  That’s part of what we need to finally pass it. I’m here, though, to respond to Greg’s original post replying to Elizabeth Sholes.

First about me. I’m a former staffer for Democratic legislators in the Capitol. I’m now a lobbyist for a nonprofit that has no position on single-payer, which is why I’m not using my real name. I have worked with Elizabeth Sholes and the California Council Churches and Church Impact over the years and can confirm that they are progressive on everything. You can check their website.

Ms. Sholes’s post on the death of SB 810 was accurate on all the facts that I have been able to check out. I know that Leno and Steinberg had lined up 20 of the 21 votes they needed to get SB 810 through the Senate and to the Assembly, and they seem to have been at least close on the 21st vote. And the level of vitriol of many of the calls to the offices of some of the 6 Democratic senators who didn’t vote for it, and even to Leno’s and Steinberg’s offices, was extreme and was the direct cause of losing the 20th and maybe 21st votes.

I note that neither Greg none any of Ms. Sholes’s other critics here or on the Daily Kos cited any evidence to the contrary. Suppositions and unsupported accusations aren’t evidence.

If anything, Ms. Sholes under-reported the vitrol.

Everyone who has worked for a legislator for long is used to calls that are sometimes angry, sometimes misinformed, and sometimes cross the line into personal rudeness. Those calls are generally pretty easy to handle. Sometimes I got new information from them. Sometimes I was able to engage them in a respectful conversation. Sometimes they changed a legislator’s vote in the way they were intended to. (Ms. Sholes’s organization is sometimes pretty effective at that, by the way.)

Fewer times, the caller just wanted to yell. That was unpleasant, but wasn’t really a problem either. After listening to them a bit, I’d tell them to call back when they were they were ready to have a real conversation. Then I’d have the pleasure of hanging up on them.

But the abusive calls that came in from some of the supporters – not all by any means, but a large number – were worse than I ever experienced. In all my time in the Capitol, for example, no caller ever called me a stupid cunt.

Having heard about the personal rudeness to staff that some single-payer supporters displayed even during in-person visits over the last few years, I find it unlikely that the calls were actually opponents pretending to be supporters (as some critics of Ms. Sholes have suggested, again without evidence). Plus, there’s the fact that one single-payer organization posted the name of a staffer and a request to call her, and that posting was followed quickly by some of the most extreme calls.

My purpose here isn’t to suggest excusing the senators, Democrats or Republicans, who didn’t vote for SB 810. If anyone can find a way to hold them accountable, please do.

It’s to suggest that, if we want to win — and not just have the pleasure of blaming everyone else when we lose again — we need to examine ourselves, and we need to change. Leno, to my surprise, seems willing to try it again next year. But if nothing changes, nothing changes. Or as some of the members of Ms. Sholes’s organization might say, there’s no redemption without repentance.

In response, I first want to thank Sam for the thoughtful reply.  (I also want to let him know that there are plenty of anonymizing services out there if he’d like to use them; many of our commenters do.  I still have no idea, for example, who Ron and Anna Winship really are.)  I agree that the discussion on single-payer that Vern brokered between TJLocalSA and Doug Jones was especially good; I will hope to do as well in my response to Sam here.

(1) My sense too is that Catholic Church Impact is a progressive organization.  I also believe that it is an organization that — like many lobbying groups, including whatever Sam’s is — fosters a close bond between lobbyists and legislators in that lobbyists must understand legislators’ perspectives and sensitivities to do their job most effectively.  Something is certainly gained there — but something is also lost.  Specifically, this empathy fosters a view of legislators relationship to citizens as public masters rather than public servants.

My concern about the Sholes piece is that, taken seriously, it argues against drives to encourage activists (or even not-usually-activists) to call legislators because they might not take on the proper supplicant role.  While beneficial to office staff and to professional talkers-to-government-personnel, which after all is what lobbyists are, I suggest that it is much more corrosive to the democratic process than the alternative that I describe in point (4).

(2) As to”what really happened,” I was speaking to someone about this yesterday and I said that I saw four possibilities: (a) Sholes is making the story (or the extent of the story) on her own; (b) Sholes is being misled about the nature and extent of what happened by her sources; (c) the calls were the result of a “false-flag operation” conducted  by single-payer opponents to have just such an effect, and (d) her report is essentially correct regarding both the quality and quantity of such calls.

I don’t know and can’t know what happened.  Based on what I’ve heard of Sholes, I find (a) the least likely.  (It might be a good way to ingratiate oneself with more conservative swing-vote Dems, but it would be bearing false witness to the extreme.)  The others are more plausible — although, given our tendency to notice the unusual and incongruous more than the typical, it would be very natural for only a few such calls to be magnified in the perception of those taking calls.  How many calls was it?  In our state of 37 million people, would it take more than a dozen people to make these eight calls and capture the horrified attention of interns?  A dozen ain’t much.

Where I disagree with Sam is this: he doesn’t know and can’t know either.  He knows what he’s been told; he does not know the extent to which he’s been played.  Consider how delicious this line of argument is to moderate Dems who are the focus of great abuse by progressives and liberals: it’s a chance to shut them up entirely for fear that, if they do activate the public on an issue, similar consequences might result.  Would legislative staff play their lobbyist friends, to serve this greater good?  Worse deceptions than this are commonplace in politics.

Specifically, he doesn’t know whether Steinberg had even the 20th vote.  (Obviously, promising a switch like this is easy if the supposed 20th vote knows that the 21st vote isn’t going to be forthcoming.)  As to the 21st vote, “seem[s] to have been at least close” is extremely weak language.  It makes for a convenient story, from the perspective of suppressing public meddling in the legislative process, but one so convenient as to be tempting to tell regardless of the truth.  This is all the more true of their being the “direct cause” of the refusal to switch; I’d argue, in fact, that the more direct (and certainly for persistent) cause was these Senators being pusillanimous.

(3) Yes, I don’t cite any evidence to the contrary — but then I’m not the one trying to make a case here.  Sholes (aided now by Sam) is the prosecutor of the unruly progressive callers; the case is hers to make.  I think, again, that this is one hell of a corrosive charge to make.  To reject it, I needn’t reach a verdict of “innocent,” but only of “not proven.”  As for Sholes underreporting the vitriol; well, she didn’t use obscene language, but beyond that I hardly think the claim that it was so bad that single-payer is now dead forever is “understatement” of any kind.

(4) I appreciate Sam’s helpful review of the types of calls that he received as a staffer; it sounds pretty similar to what I’ve experienced on campaigns.  As for being called a “stupid cunt” — and because that language makes me uncomfortable, I’ll quote in only that once, and will hereafter refer to it as “dim vagina” — I don’t defend it.  I specifically warn people against anything of the sort, as do I think most others who try to prompt public calls.  But I know that it happens; it has happened to my subordinates in phone banking and similar things have happened to me.

Here are the magic words that I have provided to staffer for use in such circumstances: “I have been instructed that if any caller spoke to me in that way I should feel free to hang up on them, so goodbye.”

That’s it!  If you’re going to be a hypertrophic phallus to someone, you have to expect them to hung up on you.  Tell the supervisor, compose yourself — the sentiment meant for your boss, not you — and go onto the next call.

Unless the “personal rudeness to staff that some single-payer supporters displayed even during in-person visits” of which Sam knows extents into the calling them dim vaginas, I don’t think that it is fair to extrapolate from such contacts to these few conversations.  Lou Correa and I are not infrequently in the same room here in Orange County, although we have never thus far spoken, but if we do speak it might be difficult for me to quell such choice words as “shameful,” “corrupt,” and “treacherous” — and this is someone whose votes I do like a fair portion of the time.  I would simply fall short of invoking dim vaginas.  Do I think that he should be expected to take it?  Yes, I do — because, by acts like this, he has earned it.  He has to know, to feel, that this behavior is Not OK.

(Who am I to speak to him this way?  A citizen of the great state of California, that’s who.)

While Sam dismisses the possibility of a false-flag operation, I dismiss his dismissal.  But I will grant him this: if one single-payer organization posted the name of a staffer and a request to call her, I reject that.  The focus should be on the office, not on the staffer.  If “that posting was followed quickly by some of the most extreme calls,” I condemn them — assuming that by “extreme” Sam means that they went beyond “shameful” into “dim vagina” territory.  Even if they didn’t, giving out “hostile” staffer’s names like that is a bad practice.

(5) Sam helpfully notes in his conclusion that he doesn’t “suggest excusing the senators, Democrats or Republicans, who didn’t vote for SB 810.”  That, seriously, is helpful to hear.  It was conspicuously absent from Sholes’s commentary.  All blame — permanent blame — was placed upon perhaps a relatively few callers, rather than the politicians who could have resolved the short-term problem by agreeing to a courtesy vote before the last minute.

I accept that a share of blame falls on those, presuming any, who let their “dim vagina” freak flag fly.  I will indeed use this example as an object lesson in my future attempts to rouse the public to call the legislature.  But this is a sort of criticism that best comes from “within the family” — and, in this respect, by focusing all of her fire on what may have been a few misbegotten activists, Sholes did not write from the perspective of one “within the family.”

My reaction would have been different had she, as a fellow progressive, said something along the lines of this:

“Some of the calls that came into legislative offices were so rude — insulting Senate staffers in obscene, sexist, and racist language — that they were counterproductive.  By allowing the issue to become the deportment of callers, they allowed legislators inclined to oppose the bill to justify to the public — illogically but effectively — their denying Majority Leader Steinberg even a courtesy vote.

“I recognize that those who try to arouse activists to contact their legislators may have difficulty ensuring that they follow the cardinal rule of lobbying: politeness.  That said, we have to figure out ways to do a better job that we did here.  Such activist leaders have a hard task — and a necessary task.  We must learn from this, though, that there are consequences to rousing the public to insult the targets of our lobbying.

“Yes, the Senators bear the blame for not casting the right vote; but we should bear the responsibility for choosing the most effective ways to get them to do so.”

That would have been criticism from “within the family” — a stance that noted that the Senators’ votes here were deeply damaging and the “but ten people called my aide a dim vagina!”  justification for the vote deeply inadequate.  It might have noted, furthermore, that by and large we advocates did wait until pretty much the last minute before turning the fire hose on “high.”  It might have noted that a circumstance in which the Senators did not pass the legislation without advocates having pushed hard for citizen participation would have been even more damaging to the movement than a defeat.  It would have shown us being inert, indistinguishable to the public mind from being uncaring.  How, I wonder, would that have played in Pacoima?

Sholes gave every indication of understanding towards even our weakest Democratic legislators and no indication of understanding towards even our most sincere grass-roots single-payer advocates.  This is neither surprising nor damning — she is a lobbyist, after all.  She is paid to understand their perspective, not ours.  But in both what she said and how she said it, she drove a wedge between progressive lobbyists — who by and large I suspect have good salaries and good health care — and those of us outside of Sacramento who either are ourselves or who work with people who are desperate, suffering, and dying.

Yes, some of the people I call upon to act will suffer from poor deportment.  Yes, I will try to remember to stress deportment more next time.  But I do expect both legislators (and lobbyists) to understand how anger and fear drive people to extremes — and not to haughtily demand their repentance before agreeing to once again serve the causes of righteousness.  I’d rather let you call me a dim vagina a million times before seeing you voting to let my wife or daughters die for lack of adequate health insurance.


About Greg Diamond

Prolix worker's rights and government accountability attorney and General Counsel of CATER. His anti-corruption work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, leading them to work with the Democratic Party of Orange County Chair and other co-conspirators (who had long detested the internal oversight his presence provided) to remove him from the position of DPOC North Vice Chair of in violation of party rules and any semblance of due process. He also runs for office sometimes. Unless otherwise specifically stated, none of his writings prior to that lawless putsch ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. He tries to either suppress or openly acknowledge his partisan, issue, ideological, and "good government" biases in most of his writing here. If you have a question about any particular writing, just ask him about it and (unless you are an pseudonymous troll) he will probably answer you at painful length. He lives in Beautiful Bountiful Brea, but while he may brag about it he generally doesn't blog about it. A family member works as a campaign treasurer for candidates including Wendy Gabriella in AD-73; he doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. He does advise some campaigns informally and (except where noted) without compensation.