At a session during the National Bike Summit, "Advocacy Guru" Stephanie Vance tried to prepare first-timers for Thursday’s meetings with members of Congress. "Did you see Legally Blonde 2? Well, it's not like that."
If only I'd seen Legally Blonde 2, I'd know what not to expect.
The other pearl I retained from Vance’s comedy show was that, when you meet with members of Congress or their staff members, it's fine to present them with facts, statistics, and rational arguments. But what they tend to retain is personal stories.
From where I was staying, I started out on foot at about 8:15 AM, in cold drizzling rain, walking toward the nearest Metro station. For once, I'd had the forethought to buy a cheap umbrella the night before. About 30 steps out the door, I was reminded that I never did get around to waterproofing these shoes.
Nearly a mile later, I was wet from my feet up to my knees. With the Metro station in sight, my phone rings. It's Ann Chanecka telling me that she will not be joining us on Capitol Hill. This meant that indeed the delegation from Arizona would just be myself plus Kristi Felts Moore, the delegate from The Flintstone’s Bedrock City. I’d Googled Kristi the night before, and the first thing to come up was her personal blog about feltmaking. Stereotypes kick in. I’m thinking, flaky earth mother. Please, God, let her not be a kook.
Our first meeting is with the office of Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. I meet Kristi in the lobby. Our conversation is focused on finding the right office. I can't size her up. My kook-radar is picking up nothing. We climb four flights of marble stairs with my squeaking wet shoes echoing throughout the halls of Congress. I do not feel at all like Reese Witherspoon, which must be a good omen. We meet with Brandon Bragato, a Legislative Assistant to the Congressman–and a cyclist.
Kristi starts, and takes control of the meeting. She knows her stuff, and has her spiel down. "…cyclists and pedestrians…vulnerable users of the roads…transportation enhancements…bicycle caucus…"
A wave of relief washes over me. Kristi is neither flaky nor a kook. Whether or not she’s an earth mother, I don’t care.
When I speak, I pull out the personal story I've been refining in my mind since last night. It goes something like this:
For ten years, I lived in Takoma Park, Maryland, and I'd come to enjoy the quality of life of a walkable and bike-friendly city. When my long-distance fiancee suggested that we live together in Flagstaff, my first thought was, Hell no! But I opened up to the idea when I learned about the Flagstaff Urban Trail System and other investments the City had made to make Flagstaff safe and liveable. Because Flagstaff took cycling seriously, Arizona gained another voter, taxpayer, and now a worker in the cycling industry.
And that becomes the template for all of our meetings–invented on the spot during our first meeting: Kristi leads with data, I follow with my story.
When we are preparing to leave, Rep. Grijalva emerges from his office and shakes our hands. I met a real Congressman.
I'm thinking, That was easy.
Kristi and I make a triumphant visit to the basement cafeteria. I learn that Kristi has been cycling since 2005. Her boyfriend, Neill Thompson, got her on the back of a tandem, and she loved it. When he began to complain about the lackluster performance of the local cycling advocacy organization, she told him to quit whining and get more involved. Now he's been the president of the Arizona Bicycle Club for several years. Yes, Kristi makes handmade felt, but her day job is being a geek who knows her way around TCP/IP and Cisco routers.
Kristi and I make ten visits, a mixture of scheduled meetings with staff, and unscheduled flybys where we merely drop off a thin information packet.
Not all of the visits are as friendly as the one in Sen. Grijalva's office. Being that we are from Arizona, most of our visits are with Republicans. Some are freshmen, with no established reputation on cycling issues.
I find myself assuming the Republicans will be indifferent to cycling programs–if not in outright opposition to them.
In two notable cases, I discover I am wrong.
During a meeting with Tommy McKone, an aid to Rep. Ben Quayle, R-Ariz., the Congressman himself pops out of the office wearing a huge grin and wanting to talk bikes. He owns three, and is very friendly. Another staffer snaps a picture of Quayle with Kristi and me. And in a flash he's gone again. But I feel like he's one of us.
When I'm in the office my own Congressman, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and I’m telling my "liveable community" story to Thomas Van Flein, he cuts me off and says, "You're preaching to the choir. Doctor Gosar gets it. He is a cyclist. Doctor Gosar knows the health benefits of cycling, and he lives in Flagstaff. He voted in favor of the Transportation Bill."
Van Flein did not rule out the possibility that Gosar might join the Congressional Bicycle Caucus. Imagine a Tea-Party-identified, Sarah-Palin-endorsed Congressman in the Bicycle Caucus. Kum-bike-ya!
When we finish our final appointment, we do some subterranian sightseeing on the way to the Congressional Reception held by the League of American Bicyclists. Our day of advocacy has concluded. We manage to navigate the entire way underground using the famous tunnel labyrinth that connects the Capitol to all of the adjacent office buildings. I even get to see (but not ride) the fabled United States Capitol subway system that I never quite believed really existed.
We see brightly colored bicycle pins on security guards, and other employees–evidence that Bike Summit advocates have saturated the Capitol.
At the reception, The League provides Bud and Bud Light–promoting the importance of drinking water at the end of a day of physical exertion. (Seriously, no New Belgium products?) About 800 advocates are feeling quite successful. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., chairman of the Bicycle Caucus, congratulates us all. And there is much schmoozing…
I’m hooked. I definitely want to do this again–in wet pants again if necessary. My wife informed me that we actually own (own!) a copy of Legally Blonde 2 on DVD. I can watch it anytime. But if it’s not like this, I’m not interested.