Mayor Kenney’s communications office was swamped.
It wasn’t even two months into President Trump’s term, and the calls, spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said, just kept coming in: Philadelphians asking about the president’s travel ban, his vows to defund "sanctuary cities" and repeal the Affordable Care Act, his proposed cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It was a constant barrage for the first two months. There was something new every day,” Hitt said. “We were constantly getting the same emails. From reporters, ‘What does this mean?’ And from citizens, ‘How can I help?’ ”
For the last month, the mayor’s office has been trying to answer those questions in a series of “action guides” for residents – fact sheets on agencies targeted for cuts by the administration, or policies that might pull funding from Philadelphia. They’ve got numbers for the White House and Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey and a list of local organizations looking for volunteers. One urges Philadelphians to write letters to the editor. Another encourages donations to local immigrant outreach groups.
“The idea was really to cut through all the rhetoric and provide for people a clear understanding of what was at stake” in terms of federal funding cuts and what they might mean for Philadelphians, Hitt said. “And there’s a lot of energy out there right now to do something. And we wanted to make sure we were providing people with clear ways that they could take part in pushing against policies they might not support.”
The mayor’s office has long pushed progressive politics in Harrisburg and Washington, through typical lobbying methods, Hitt said. “But we know that lawmakers are more receptive to hearing from citizens” than they are from city officials, she said.
Kenney’s office has published four guides so far. The first, on immigration and threatened funding cuts to sanctuary cities like Philadelphia, was posted last month; fact sheets on the Affordable Care Act repeal, cuts to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Trump-ordered review of the Clean Power Plan followed.
They aren’t quite a Philadelphia-specific version of Indivisible – the now-ubiquitous tactical guide to resisting the Trump agenda that has progressives turning up en masse at town hall meetings. But the city’s action guides don’t pull punches, describing Trump’s revised travel ban as an “inherently discriminatory” order that “makes us all less safe,” and calling out the ACA repeal for “benefiting the wealthy and healthy at the expense of those who are low-income and sick.”
The city says thousands of people have clicked on the guides. They’ve also drawn some criticism from Philadelphians on the other side of the aisle.
“Guess the Mayor decided not to waste taxpayer resources with his political messages when Obamacare premiums skyrocketed by 33 percent in PA this year,” the local Republican Party wrote on Facebook when the ACA “action guide” was published.
Albert Eisenberg, the spokesman for Philadelphia’s GOP, said the guides were not a way to win over Republican voters.
“When your political platform is knee-jerk resistance to any and every thing that the administration is doing, I don’t believe that’s a path to victory,” he said. “In general, we want our local officials to work effectively with whoever the administration is. I’m a millennial, and I think people my age confuse sharing a status with like-minded people with taking action that’s effective. Elections are won by winning the hearts and minds of moderate voters.”
Some local organizations who were included in the guides have said they’ve seen an uptick in volunteers. At Juntos, which serves Latino immigrants, office manager and program assistant Carolina Torres said they’ve also been getting calls from residents associated with Indivisible. Many don’t speak Spanish, she said, but are eager to help.
“Our community is really strong right now, but [the immigration executive orders] are definitely disconcerting,” she said. “We’re at full capacity right now. It’s really difficult to make sure that we communicate with every single person who has an inquiry.”
At the Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-based organization that deals with air quality, community outreach director Matt Walker said they hadn’t seen more volunteers due to the action guide, though he said that might take time. The Clean Air Council was mentioned on the latest action guide, released last week, after Trump signed an executive order calling for a review of the Clean Power Plan and other Obama-era climate-change regulations.
“Since Trump was elected, we have seen an uptick in volunteers, donations, and people wanting to take action on air pollution and climate change for sure,” he said.
Walker’s organization was pleased with “strong leadership from the mayor’s office,” he said – to the Clean Air Council’s knowledge, the city has never advocated so aggressively against a presidential agenda before.
“But we’ve also never seen a president so aggressively anti-EPA before,” he said.
Hitt, who began working for the city under Kenney, said she wasn’t sure how previous mayors lobbied during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
“We never had cause to do anything like this before,” she said. “We wouldn’t have organized something [like the action guides] on such a large scale. It wasn’t really necessary until now.”