State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Constituents: We don't feel we're getting through to Toomey

Written by Katie Meyer, Capitol Bureau Chief | Feb 3, 2017 11:36 PM
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Toomey has confirmed that he supports the nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary. (Photo by AP)

(Harrisburg) -- Despite universal opposition from Democrats and at least two Republican U.S. senators, billionaire conservative donor Betsy DeVos is edging closer to becoming the country's next education secretary.

Across Pennsylvania, educators, activists and voters are attempting to halt the nomination through the only avenue available -- convincing GOP Senator Pat Toomey to vote against DeVos.

For the last two weeks, Toomey's offices have been experiencing the highest sustained volume of calls, emails, faxes, and letters of the senator's entire tenure.

Because of the barrage, most of the thousands of calls received at the senator's seven offices -- six in Pennsylvania, one in Washington D.C. -- go to voicemail, and the voicemailboxes are nearly always full.

Each office has five phone lines, but Toomey spokesman Steve Kelly said even with all hands on deck, it's been difficult to keep up.

Asked how many calls have been received and what they were about, the office declined to reveal any numbers or records.

Kelly noted, "Senator Toomey is very much aware of the magnitude of the call volume and receives a roundup of constituent communications and their positions."

That hasn't seemed to make much of a difference, though.

After some speculation by activists that he might be on the fence, Toomey confirmed in a recent statement that he is "pleased to vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education," citing her work to promote charter schools as a positive direction for the country.

For many of the people trying to get Toomey's ear, the senator taking a concrete position just adds to the frustration.

Tina Stein, a physician and organizer of a chapter of the national Indivisible Action Network, made seven calls to Toomey's various offices on a recent lunch break, none of which went through. She said it feels like the callers are just being ignored.

"We're not being heard," she said. "We're trying to hold his feet to the fire, and trying to get him to not vote for someone who is totally unqualified."

The inaccessibility isn't her only complaint. Stein and many others have pointed to the fact DeVos has donated to Toomey's past campaigns. The nonpartisan Center for American Progress cites $60,050 in campaign contributions to Toomey, courtesy of DeVos and her family members.

That sort of contribution isn't uncommon in politics, and DeVos would be far from the first political donor appointed to a cabinet position. But the implication has rubbed many, like Stein, the wrong way.

"It looks like he's been bought, to put it bluntly," she said.

Katherine Fritz, an artist and sometimes-teacher who lives in Philadelphia, was also frustrated by the donation -- so much so she created a GoFundMe page to "buy Pat Toomey's vote."

Fritz says she initially meant the page to be tongue-in-cheek -- something of a raised fist at how money is spent in Washington.

"I understand that of course it's technically legal, but should it be?" she asked. "That's the question."

Many others appear to have had the same question. Fritz's GoFundMe page blew up, and more than 27,000 people contributed nearly $45,000 in just two days.

Fritz says she isn't planning any actual bribes. When DeVos's confirmation hearing is over, she's going to donate the money to three charities in the commonwealth: Camp Sojourner, the Pennsylvania Arts Education Network, and the Children's Literacy Initiative.

DeVos is scheduled for final confirmation early next week--either on Monday or Tuesday.

The calls may taper off after that, but activist Sarah Stone said this groundswell won't end there.

Stone is one of the volunteer organizers of weekly "Tuesdays with Toomey" events at the Senator's offices, where participants meet with members of his staff and often stage protests. The events began soon after Trump's election, and she said the group has no intention of folding after the president's cabinet is confirmed.

"I think [Toomey] is just expecting that, you know, there's a lot of emotion because of Trump and that we will go away, and he's trying to ride that out," she said. "But that's not how it's going to work."

Published in News, State House Sound Bites

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