The Cold Calls Behind Those Personal Letters to Congress

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The Petroleum Marketers Association of America says oil speculators are aggravating price increases at the pump. (By Elaine Thompson -- Associated Press)
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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

In the past five years, 44 percent of Americans -- about 100 million people -- have contacted their elected representatives in Washington. Most of them did so at the prompting of a third party -- often a lobbying group -- according to surveys done for the Congressional Management Foundation.

Which is a major reason that Michele Simmons of Tok, Alaska, and Kiym Gardner of Clarksville, Tenn., have steady, stay-at-home jobs.

Simmons and Gardner are among 500 contract workers for Democracy Data & Communications (DDC), an Alexandria company that specializes in lobbying from the grass roots. DDC pays the two women to spend much of their day telephoning people around the country and asking them to sign letters to Congress that press for legislation.

The workers are paid $10 to $15 an hour, depending on their expertise. DDC says lobby groups pay the company $75 to $125 per letter sent, depending on the difficulty of the campaign.

Whether lawmakers know it or not -- and some might be disappointed to learn -- the practice is not only common but growing. Interest groups, preparing for a new president and the sweeping initiatives he no doubt will launch, are increasingly hiring folks like Simmons and Gardner to build lists of voters-back-home who can be called upon to contact Washington.

The seemingly heartfelt letters they produce are among the most persuasive kinds of communications that Congress receives, polls of congressional offices have shown.

Grass-roots recruiters such as Simmons and Gardner act as both salespeople and reporters. They try to persuade the people they call to send a letter on a specific topic and then compose a draft of the missive -- subject to the person's approval -- based on the stories they hear. The people contacted mail, e-mail or fax the letters to their lawmakers in Washington.

The object, said B.R. McConnon III, chief executive of DDC, "is to find real people with real stories."

Simmons, 49, is, in fact, a former journalist. Gardner, 35, once worked in marketing for NASCAR. Both say they enjoy their jobs because they get to talk to people all day and don't have to commute to work. For Simmons, that could mean a 300-mile trek to Fairbanks.

"I work from 30 to 40 hours a week and I'm free to set my own schedule; that sometimes includes weekend work," Simmons said. "I love it. I love all the people I've had the pleasure to speak with. I've learned a lot. I've worked on issues that range from animal testing to Medicare."

"We have a database of folks to contact who for whatever reason have expressed an interest in the issue of the day," Simmons explained. "I try to describe the issue. If they are interested, then I generally go through a series of questions. At the end, I ask them if they want to have a letter composed based on the information they shared with me."

Simmons said she produces an average of one letter per hour. Gardner gins up between four and eight letters a day, she said. And she is happy for the work. "I live in a small town where there aren't a lot of good-paying jobs," she said.

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