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To Save Obamacare, Democrats are Looking for a Few Good Stories

Aisha Crossley is an insurance examiner from Las Vegas, but in Washington this week she did a tour of duty on the front lines in the fight over the Affordable Care Act, armed only with her story about how the law had helped her insure her four kids.

“I live paycheck to paycheck and the ACA has allowed my kids to continue to go to the doctor, to continue to be healthy and get what they need. And without it, I don’t know where I would be,” she told NBC News.

Crossley didn’t end up here on her own.

She volunteered for service in the Obamacare wars on a website run by the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, ACAWorks.org, which has already collected more than 3,000 testimonials since it soft-launched after the election. The site relaunches Thursday with more features.

“Telling stories in advocacy is not a new tool, but this issue and this moment need to be humanized and the stories are the way to do it. Obamacare became symbolic and detached from its impacts,” said Emily Tisch Sussman, the group’s campaigns director.

Health care under Donald Trump 3:48

Crossley wanted to tell her story to her state’s Republican senator, Dean Heller, who supports repealing Obamacare. But Heller’s office was unable to make the senator or a staff member available without more notice.

So Crossley went instead to Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, Nevada’s newly elected Democrat. “It’s great to meet you after seeing your commercials all the time!” Crossley beamed during a private meeting.

Masto, who like other Democrats is doing what she can to defend the law in the face of Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress, thanked Crossley for speaking out. “With your voice, talking about the real implications to lives, to people, it’s going to help make a difference,” Masto said.

Advocacy groups have recognized the power of personal anecdotes since Mr. Smith went to Washington. They've built “story banks” of compelling testimony from real people, ready-made for lawmakers and journalists looking to put a face on controversial policy issues.

But with Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers taking control in Washington, some Democratic groups are ramping up efforts to collect stories. They're betting that the most effective way to combat Trump's cabinet nominees, defend Obamacare, or undermine the president-elect’s populist aura, will be to help ordinary Americans speak up.

FightFor$15, the movement to raise the minimum wage, has organized protests of cooks and cashiers who work at Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., the restaurants formerly run by Andy Pudzer, Trump's nominee to head the Labor Department. “I know first-hand that Puzder would be the wrong choice for America’s workers,” Rogelio Hernandez, who works at a Carl’s Jr. in Santa Monica, California, said in a statement.

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On Wednesday, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren held a forum with people who had their homes foreclosed on by OneWest, the bank owned by Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s pick to be Treasury secretary.

That same day, a coalition of liberal groups released a new ad starring Lisa Fraser, a woman who lost her house in a OneWest foreclosure as her husband battled cancer. “Steve Mnuchin ran the bank that committed fraud and took our home,” Lisa Fraser says straight to camera.

The ad is airing in the home states of five Republican senators who sit on committees overseeing Mnuchin's confirmation.

“In this hyper-partisan political climate, people who have been directly impacted by a policy can break through the noise and connect with voters. I think it’s a tactic you’ll see employed consistently to fight the Trump Administration,” said Mike Czin, a spokesperson for Allied Progress, one of the groups behind the ad.

It's a similar tactic to the one Democrats deployed with lethal efficiency against Mitt Romney in 2012, when they ran ads featuring people affected by Bain Capital buyouts.

But what’s different about efforts like ACAWorks.org is the industrial scale of its operation, aided by technology.

The website is just the public face of an operation that vets, packages, and disseminates stories about the ACA as quickly as possible, while there’s a still a chance to save the law.

To sift through the hundreds of submissions the website receives every week, a small staff organizes volunteer phone banks that gather twice every week on the second floor of CAP’s headquarters in downtown Washington.

The volunteers call people who have submitted stories online to gauge their willingness to speak out and attempt to verify their claims, perusing social media accounts and other publicly available information. Once vetted and selected, staffers help those chosen for the project to turn their stories into social media fodder, letters to the editors, or op-eds, which have seen placements in places like the New York Times and USA Today. Others are enlisted to lobby lawmakers personally.

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To solicit submissions, CAP has employed the email marketing lists of several allied groups, including those involved in getting enrolled in Obamacare when it first came online.

Maybe it says something about Washington that advocates expend so much effort to find real people in a country full of them. But even though the Affordable Care Act has helped 20 million get health insurance, it can be surprisingly difficult to find someone affected by the law who is willing speak publicly, on demand, with a verifiable story and relatively safe background.

The goal is to change public opinion about the unpopular law and make sure members of Congress feel the heat as they rush to repeal Obamacare, just as the Tea Party made itself known when the law passed.

Logan Buerlein, a graphic designer from Nashville who says Obamacare saved his life after he was diagnosed with cancer in his 20s, smiled as he left a meeting in the office of Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Health Committee, Wednesday.

“The last thing I said to him was, as a constituent of this office and Tennessee voter, I support the ACA,” said Buerlein, who submitted his story on the website.

Meanwhile, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, another group behind the anti- Mnuchin ad, is asking its members to find family members, friends, or neighbors who voted for Trump and are now having buyer's remorse.

“We expect Trump to continue betraying his own voters by siding with billionaires and Wall Street instead of them -- and therefore the pool of Trump voters to find and elevate will get bigger and bigger,” said Adam Green, the group’s co-founder.

Update: A spokesperson for Heller, Neal Patel, said his office tried to set up a meeting with Crossley. “On Tuesday, our office offered the Center for American Progress a meeting. Unfortunately, the Center for American Progress failed to confirm a time and then showed up unannounced to Senator Heller’s office the next day with the press," Patel said.