[Update: On Tuesday afternoon, approximately 50 people showed up at Sen. Toomey’s Center City office to talk about environmental issues, and ask the Senator to vote No on Pres. Trump’s nominee for the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt. This time, the revolving door to the office building was locked, so the TWT participants—including a few environmental experts—were unable to enter even the lobby. Several TWT members said a security guard would not let them enter, and would not accept the approximately 40 letters they brought to leave with the Senator’s staff. And Vashti Bandy, who has been with TWT from the start, said no one in the office answered the phone, either, despite taking calls earlier in the day. “I was flabbergasted,” says Bandy. “They work for us, as citizens.” Later, Toomey spokesperson E.R. Anderson sent the same response to The Citizen as she had after a previous encounter two weeks ago, noting that staff members were “committed elsewhere” on Tuesday afternoon. Bandi says TWT will try again to get an appointment with Toomey staff members next week, but will show up at his office either way, this time to talk about civil liberties and oppose Trump’s Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions.]
When Pennsylvania tipped for Trump in the morning hours of November 9th, the news hit Vashti Bandy like a punch. As she sat on the couch before the TV, checking the results against her phone, Pennsylvania turned red on the electoral map.
Her first thought was of her grandmother, Carolyn, who at seven years old fled Georgia with her family under threat of death from the Ku Klux Klan. Heading for Chicago, the family’s mule died. The family changed route and found sanctuary in Philadelphia. They didn’t run far enough, Bandy thought.
The celebratory bottle of pink Moscato that Bandy had bought in anticipation of Hillary Clinton’s election would have to wait.
In the days after the vote, Bandy, a teacher and writer recently returned from years in Japan, pushed through the shock of Trump’s victory and reached out to conservatives she knew. Through Facebook dialogues, these Trump-voters cited concern for small business, disgust with the D.C. establishment, and other fair-minded motivations. Hate, Bandy found, had not decided their vote. Communication, if not common ground, was possible.
Encouraged, Bandy moved the effort offline and showed up in the lobby of 1628 JFK Boulevard, a glass and concrete tower that houses Senator Pat Toomey’s Philadelphia office.
A staffer named Katie came down from the 17th floor, and Bandy handed her a greeting card for the senator. It featured two puppies and the sentiment “We are the same.” Inside, Bandy had written a plea to the senator to condemn Trump’s choice to name Steve Bannon as chief White House strategist. The two talked: Bandy sharing her fears of a rising tide of racism and xenophobia, and Katie taking notes, promising to pass the message along to the senator.
Comprised mostly of middle-aged, middle-class women, most of whom had not been politically engaged beyond the voting booth, Tuesdays with Toomey has gained momentum with their insistent yet civil ritual of activism, one they intend to enact each Tuesday at 12:30 pm well into the Trump presidency. “I will—barring injury—be here every Tuesday for the next four years,” says one organizer.
The following week, Bandy returned to the lobby of 1628 JFK with a half-dozen similarly left-leaning women she had found on Facebook. They shared their thoughts on the election. They tweeted, instagrammed and posted video of their presence far and wide. Most importantly, they had called ahead and gotten an appointment with Toomey’s office.
A staffer invited them up for a conversation. The staffer sat with them, listened, and took notes, and promised to deliver their letters of concern to the senator.
Stirred with good feeling at having been heard, the women left the office, and as they rode the elevator down from the 17th floor, they planned to do all again.
Adopting the moniker “Tuesdays with Toomey,” the group visited again on the next Tuesday at 12:30 p.m., and likewise the following week. They tightened their general concerns into selected topics. One week they called on Toomey to preserve the Affordable Care Act. On the next, they urged action over Trump’s conflicts of interest. Their attendance went from six to a dozen and doubled again. They attracted press attention and talked each time with Toomey staffers. Comprised mostly of middle-aged, middle-class women, most of whom had not been politically engaged beyond the voting booth, Tuesdays with Toomey has gained momentum with their insistent yet civil ritual of activism, one they intend to enact each Tuesday at 12:30 pm well into the Trump presidency.
“I will—barring injury—be here every Tuesday for the next six years,” Bandy says, “I’ve got six years of concerns.”
But is the senator listening?
Talk less and listen more. In May 2016, this advice was among the gentler words Toomey had for candidate Trump. The senator decried Trump’s “vulgarity” and his proposed ban on Muslim immigration. Trump, Toomey said, wouldn’t rank as even his third choice from the Republican field. It wasn’t until Toomey walked out of a Lehigh Valley voting booth on November 8th that he revealed his grudging support for his party’s nominee.
Toomey ran to appeal to the “Clinton Republicans.” His Philadelphia-area ads cited Ed Rendell’s praise for Toomey as “a man of uncommon decency” and President Obama’s plaudits for the senator’s push to expand background checks for gun buyers, a move that dropped Toomey’s “A” rating with the National Rifle Association to a “C.” Toomey’s seemingly moderate path likely helped him outperform Trump in and around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but cost him in the dyed-red middle of the state. Toomey squeaked into re-election with a 1.8 percent vote margin over Katie McGinty.
However, make no mistake: Toomey is a true conservative. So, while the senator may be open to criticism of Trump’s rhetoric, shine for Putin and tangled business interests, Toomey nevertheless holds a spate of positions diametrically opposed to the liberal leanings of those in Tuesdays With Toomey.
Listening has its limits, limits that TWT’s most recent visit may have laid bare.
By 12:20pm on December 20th, TWT had gathered over 40 activists on the sidewalk before 1628 JFK Boulevard, and more were on their way. Many wore bipartisan-purple hats, gloves or coats. TWT organizers told me that they had an appointment with Toomey’s office on the understanding that a select few from their rank —with no press attached — would come up to resume the civil conversation of previous visits. However, according to a Facebook post from a TWT organizer, a Toomey office staffer who wouldn’t give his name had canceled the appointment via phone in a brief and “awful” exchange.
Toomey’s communications director would later tell me in an email that the staff was “committed elsewhere,” but that “Senator Toomey does appreciate hearing from Pennsylvanians and keeps their thoughts in mind when considering all issues.”
It’s unlikely that Toomey would listen to today’s message: Protect Sanctuary Cities. A month ago, Toomey held the senate floor to revive his Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act. Co-sponsored by Senators Chuck Grassley (IA) and Ted Cruz (TX), the bill, which had stalled last July before coming to a vote, proposed cutting Economic Assistance Programs and Community Development Block Grants (the latter of which would cost Philadelphia $39 million in 2017) to municipalities unwilling to share an arrested individual’s immigration status or comply with “detainer requests,” which are bids to hold and surrender specified individuals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
If Toomey’s stances are so defined, what purpose does a weekly visit to his office serve, especially when you find yourself out in the cold with the doors locked behind you? For these activists, speaking truth to power is its own reward. “We have to expect the best of people and believe that they can change,” says one TWT organizer. “Look at gay marriage. Twenty years ago it would have been politically insane to support it, but that changed thanks to the long term engagement of people like us.”
“We’re calling on his better angels,” TWT organizer Angela York-Crane said with a smile.
TWT moved into the lobby and met a bulky, immovable wall of plainclothes police officers. With smiles, the officers directed the crowd away from the elevators and into an alcove.
Thusly corralled, TWT activists fought the acoustics of the glass and marble lobby in short, positive speeches that made the case for Sanctuary Cities. Hidden City writer Ann de Forest appealed to Philadelphia’s past, inviting the senator on a tour of the city’s legacy as a “holy experiment,” a haven for the persecuted. UPenn sociology professor Amada Armenta cited recent data showing immigrant felony rates to be roughly half those of native born Americans. David Applebaum, a retired Rowan University historian, warned that the U.S. risks replicating the culturally alienated ghettos and refugee camps of Europe. A Toomey staffer, a young man named “Philip,” arrived to receive the activists’ letters of concern. A box was handed to Philip from across the police line, and without a word he caught the next elevator back up to the 17th floor. With that, the police ushered TWT out of the golden-hued lobby and locked the glass doors behind them.
As the demonstration wound down with announcements of hashtags and future events, two office workers caught a smoke break in the sunlight of the alley. One of the pair, a tall woman in a black shawl, shook her head. “These people are here every Tuesday. Every Tuesday. Like, what do they want?”
I wondered that as well. If Toomey’s stances are so defined, what purpose does a weekly visit to his office serve, especially when you find yourself out in the cold with the doors locked behind you? For these activists, speaking truth to power is its own reward. So, week after week, they keep coming back, eager to salvage their relationship with Toomey’s office. “We have to expect the best of people and believe that they can change,” Sarah Roberts, a core TWT organizer, told me. “Look at gay marriage. Twenty years ago it would have been politically insane to support it, but that changed thanks to the long term engagement of people like us.”
Furthermore, Toomey wasn’t elected to be Toomey alone. “He represents Pennsylvania, and that includes us,” Roberts and several other TWT activists said to me. “It’s his job to listen.”
Corrections: An earlier posting of this story misspelled Vasthi Bandy’s grandmother’s name. It was Carolyn. It also misquoted how long Bandy plans to attend TWT; it is six years, the length of Toomey’s term, not four. Also, an image in the earlier piece was of a group of MoveOn activists, not TWT. It has been replaced.Header image by Mimi Salazar