Alisa Holleron and her group of political activists were calling Rep. Tom McClintock’s offices every day for months when they started receiving what she describes as a “chilling” greeting from his staff a few weeks ago.
“They started saying that we were impeding … the functioning of a federal office and that we were in violation of a federal law,” said Holleron. “I felt like it was threatening. I felt like they were telling me I was breaking a law and if you break a law you can get in trouble.”
Annie Mascorro, another caller and a McClintock constituent, said she had a similar experience when she dialed in and spoke with a female intern.
The staffer informed her “there is a ‘federal law’ that prohibits people from obstructing and impeding the work in a congressman’s office,” said Mascorro in a Facebook message posted the day it happened.
“I asked what the law is so I can look it up to learn more about it. She repeated the script, stating that there is a federal law that prohibits people from obstructing and impeding the work in a congressman’s office. I asked what they consider to be an obstruction so that we would know and be able to avoid breaking the law. She said she can’t give legal advice.”
The threat of legal action made Holleron worry, “Are they going to try to take some action against us?” she said.
When asked about the phone calls, McClintock’s chief of staff, Igor Birman, said via email, “No one in our office was ever told to accuse callers of breaking the law.”
He said he has no knowledge that anyone made those threats, but staff members were told they could hang up on callers.
“Mr. McClintock asked our interns to immediately terminate verbally abusive calls,” said Birman.
Birman said the women are part of an activist network that has bombarded the office with calls meant to disrupt, not discuss. They are part of the same group that has protested raucously at the congressman’s town halls in recent months, often booing and jeering McClintock. Birman said the daily calls are an organized attempt to stop the staff’s legitimate work without any desire for real political dialogue and have turned nasty at times.
“They ‘torment’ our interns and then brag about it,” Birman said. “Our interns range in age from high school to college graduates. Some are under 18. These bright kids, who come to Washington to learn about our system of government and work long hours while drawing no salary, were sworn at, compared to Nazi train conductors, asked when they lost their virginity and what type of birth control they were using, just to name a few.”
Holleron, a grandmother and therapist who specializes in conflict resolution, disputes she has been harassing or said anything sexual or derogatory in nature.
Michael Risher, senior staff attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said what Holleron and other callers spoke about might not matter. He is not aware of any law that would prohibit constituents from calling their elected representative, even repeatedly – and even when the conversation is unpleasant.
“This conduct is exactly what the First Amendment protects,” Risher said. “They are calling to speak about the issues, and as a representative, you have a duty to listen.”
Roy Gutterman, head of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, said there “might be some obscure section of the U.S. code out there” that could apply, but he was “unaware” of it.
But he said there might be some line when it comes to excessive calling.
“This set of facts really seem to fall into some gray area here between ordinary citizens and their right to petition a government official versus an ability to maintain telephone communications, but I think citizens have a right to connect to their representatives,” said Gutterman.
Holleron said she and members of two political groups largely made up of McClintock constituents who oppose his policies have been calling since February to talk about immigration, women’s rights and other topics. She said they began the effort as a way to reach out across the political divide in a rural area that has become increasingly split since the election of Donald Trump.
“My intention is inviting (McClintock) to have a dialogue with us,” said Holleron. “I’m bothered just how disturbing the divisiveness in our district is.”
Kate Hege, another constituent who phones in, said the pressure to stop calling made them want to persist.
At McClintock’s most recent town hall, Hege, Holleron, Mascorro and nine other women ages 12 to 70 dressed in red cloaks and white bonnets to mimic the oppressed women in Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a book and ongoing television series about a misogynistic dystopia run by a totalitarian regime. Hege’s mother-in-law sewed the costumes.
Red cloak protests have taken place across the country in recent weeks, including at a Tuesday event in Washington, D.C., to oppose the proposed Better Care Reconciliation Act, which would repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act.
Holleron and Mascorro said the legal threat has “died off” in recent days, but relations with their representative remain less than cordial. Birman said the office welcomes constituent calls.