Learning Disability Advocacy through Engaging U.S. Senate Campaigns
By Chris Damon, USICD Intern
Simply put, I could not have picked a more momentous time to rejoin USICD’s staff as a full-time intern.
I had worked with USICD’s staff once before, right before my senior year of college. Now, a year into my dual-degree graduate school program at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University), I found myself back in Washington, DC, working again with the organization that had first opened my eyes to how disability rights and advocacy (which I was already involved with at the local level) could have an international focus and global ramifications. I was with the team right when the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) first went to the U.S. Senate for ratification in 2012, so it was only fitting that one of my main tasks this second time around was to help coordinate outreach efforts to U.S. Senate candidates and incumbents campaigning for this year’s election cycle. Our goal was to keep track of whether candidates were emphasizing the CRPD during their campaigns, or at least publicly supporting the treaty,with the hope that we would be able to connect USICD members who live in their state to educate their candidates on the CRPD. As the outreach effort proceeded, I could not help but be touched how many candidates seemed to care – sometimes with an unexpected passion – about the rights and struggles of our community. By the end of the 2016 election season, we heard from 13 different campaigns concerning the positions of their candidates on CRPD ratification.
However, as touched as I was by these positive responses, I also could not help but be disappointed. Seventeen prospective officials may seem like a lot, but that number becomes quite a bit smaller when remembering that number is out of a total of 60 campaigns. At the same time, though, I doubt if any of this was the fault of the candidates in particular. I remember that, when calling certain campaigns to see if they had received our inquiries or if their candidate “was close in making a decision” the person on the other line always made it seem like they had simply not looked at our previous messages and/or forgotten about us. After all, campaign e-mails were no doubt monitored by multiple people, who had to sort through hundreds of different messages and e-mails at any one time (no doubt even more of a problem for candidates who already had a seat in the U.S. Senate). Therefore, it only makes sense that the outreach of USICD’s staff and our members had to occur at a specific time, and during the shifts of specific people, for us to get noticed. The problem was, no two campaigns had that same “specific time,” nor the “specific people” tasked with the same set of duties; and on top of that no two campaigns had the same guidelines on what questions they could or could not answer. Some campaigns, for example, were more than happy to answer USICD’s question, and to convey (or at least make it seem) that they took interest in what we were trying to accomplish. On the flipside, the campaign for at least one incumbent candidate explicitly told me that they could not answer legislative inquiries – meaning that attempting to get through an overloaded e-mail and voicemail server was the only convenient way for their constituents and others to get ahold of them.
Nonetheless, despite the odds we faced, there was always a hope that putting whatever information we had out there would make a difference – that those officials who may have demonstrated a less-than-stellar record towards the issues of persons with disabilities would face enough opposition (and enough calls flooding their offices) that their likelihood for winning a seat in the U.S. Senate this year would diminish. As this year’s election cycle drew to a close, though, I was surprised and dismayed at how irrelevant displayed solidarity with the disability community seemed in dictating whether candidates won or lost. As it turns out, the vast majority of people who supported the CRPD and won were incumbents, running relatively noncompetitive campaigns. While two staunch CRPD-supporting incumbents did end up losing their seats, ironically their opponents have also displayed potential for allying with our community – arguably just as strongly as they had. Now, in another day and age, I would have not have thought too much about it. Disability, after all, is supposed to be a nonpartisan issue with members of our community stretching across all sorts of political and cultural lines. Historically, it has been just that. Alas, we are not living in “another day and age,” – for it was not long before I realized the disability community likely had a lot more than a handful of senate campaigns to worry about.
Now, as my internship at USICD draws to a close, the only other thing I can say is that working with the organization’s staff was an invaluable experience. I learned a lot of valuable lessons in how to carry out public service and advocacy, working in an organization that had to quickly adapt and try to keep their members energized and positive into these next few (very long) years in a rapidly changing political climate. In turn, my experience next spring semester when I am poised to intern in the State Department will be another eye-opening experience, as I will see first-hand how a federal agency adapts to the outcome of an election that has surprised so many. I only hope I can carry over the same line of work that I was doing in USICD and in most of my working life into this completely new, and changing territory.