WASHINGTON – Just five months into his job answering phones in the office of Sen. Al Franken, 22-year-old Jens Undlin finds himself a kind of emergency first responder as the volume of calls, letters and e-mails explodes in response to President Donald Trump’s first weeks in office.
“It really is kind of inspiring,” said Undlin, a recent St. Olaf College graduate in a flannel shirt and a telephone headset. Last week, Franken’s office was fielding more than 1,000 calls a day — up from a typical 1,000 calls a month before Trump took office.
To sit with Undlin in Franken’s front office is to sit on the front lines of a still-forming grass-roots pushback against Trump’s agenda, in the form of old-fashioned congressional correspondence. The spike started with Trump’s inauguration, and as he started to roll out Cabinet nominations and executive orders, many Minnesotans had plenty to say to their elected leaders.
“It’s not too bad,” said Undlin, who’s been trained to take a level approach and listen closely as Franken’s constituents speak their mind. “The people that call you and tell you their opinions, they’re going out of their way to make a difference.”
Last week, calls to Undlin and several staff interns helping out were most heavily in response to the nomination of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary. Undlin said he handled about 3,000 calls against DeVos and about 15 in support. He took another 1,000 calls or so from people upset about the executive order that temporarily halted refugee and other visitor admissions into the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, and about 20 in favor, he said.
Voices on the left have urged Trump detractors to reach out to their representatives in Washington. At the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore said calls to congressional offices are as important as daily hygiene: “Brush your teeth, make the coffee, walk the dog and call Congress,” Moore said.
In Republican Rep. Tom Emmer’s office, e-mail volume tripled and the number of calls increased by about seven times in January of this year compared to 2016. The top issues, according to his office, were immigration, health care, the environment and government reform. At this time last year, the top issue was animal welfare. Staffers in the office recently added capacity to the main voice mail box because it was filling up so quickly.
“I’m not going to lie, sometimes you just have to stop and listen quietly,” said Becky Alery, Emmer’s spokeswoman, who has jumped on the phone a few times herself to help out with high call volumes. A few familiar constituents call the office daily, she said.
“Politics are very passionate and sometimes people do get heated,” Alery said.
Minnesota’s congressional offices aren’t alone in reports of high call and e-mail volume. One Utah woman sent a pizza with a message scrawled on the box in an effort to get Sen. Orrin Hatch’s attention. (His staff turned away the pizza and reported the incident to authorities.) Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey’s office said his office received 80,000 pieces of mail on DeVos alone. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein tweeted late last month, “When phone lines are full & you can’t reach my office, please send an e-mail. I encourage you to share your opinions.”
DFL Rep. Keith Ellison’s office got more than 10,000 e-mails in January, more than double January 2016. Most concerned Trump Cabinet appointees and the effort underway by congressional Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
His fellow DFL representatives report similar spikes: almost 7,000 e-mails, calls and faxes flowed into Rep. Rick Nolan’s office last month, about two and a half times more than the previous January. Rep. Betty McCollum’s office received 16 calls in the last two weeks of January last year and 820 in the last two weeks of January of this year.
Interns and staff assistants in Rep. Tim Walz’s office undergo training to deal with “distressed constituents,” and managers in that office said phone workers are instructed to keep things conversational when people call in with an opinion or a complaint.
“It’s really challenged us; it’s been a great test to our systems,” said Imani Augustus, one of Walz’s legislative aides in D.C. She said that sometimes the congressman himself pulls up a chair and polls her on what people are calling about.
“If someone is calling with their concerns and they’re using elevated tones, we talk about how to handle that, to keep calm,” Augustus said.
In Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office, Clara Haycraft and other staffers have fielded about 2,500 calls from people concerned or confused about the president’s executive order on refugees. The office doesn’t have a tally of how many calls they’ve received total since Inauguration Day.
Earlier this week, Senate Democrats held a 24-hour marathon of Senate floor speeches as a protest against DeVos. Franken barnstormed Capitol Hill in hopes of swaying enough Republicans to oppose her, but he was ultimately unsuccessful. She was confirmed, though two Republicans did vote against her on Tuesday.
“Never think that calling your elected officials doesn’t make a difference,” Franken posted on Facebook recently. “It does.”