The Oklahoma Miracle

September 15, 2011

Hello, this is Scott Swearingen and I’ve been active in RESULTS since 1984. I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I want to tell you about a RESULTS victory that came to be known as “The Oklahoma Miracle.”

It was late October 2003. Joanne Carter, the RESULTS Global legislative director, had just called me from Washington to ask the impossible. At the last minute, a year of grassroots work to increase funds for the global fight against AIDS was about to go down in flames. At stake was $289 million — enough to save millions of lives. Joanne felt we had the votes to pass the increase, but a powerful Oklahoma senator, Don Nickles, had decided there would be no more increases in the foreign aid bill. And to make sure, he threatened to filibuster the entire foreign aid bill rather than have the $289 million come to a vote on the Senate floor. As chairman of the Budget Committee and as the second most powerful person in the Senate, Nickles had the clout to get his way. Joanne had met with leaders of other global AIDS groups earlier that evening and they asked her if there something the RESULTS grassroots volunteers could do. RESULTS was the group working on AIDS that had the most active nationwide grassroots advocacy in place — especially in Oklahoma.

As I listened to Joanne, I didn’t have the heart to tell her I thought it was hopeless. We had met with Nickles occasionally over the years but he had done very little of what we had requested. Oklahoma is known for its conservative legislators, who generally go out of their way to oppose foreign aid. How could we turn him around? I didn’t know what to do, but with Joanne’s encouragement I felt we had to try. Little did I know what the next 72 hours would be like.

On Monday morning, I started calling the other 5 RESULTS groups in Oklahoma to ask them to launch a statewide “call to action.” For the next two days, we used all the skills we had learned in RESULTS to generate political will. Nathaniel Batchhelder in Oklahoma City wrote a stirring one-page action sheet with the headline: “Senator Nickles Wants to Block $289 Million to Fight Global AIDS.” We asked that citizens call and e-mail Nickles’ office on Wednesday to urge him to change his mind. Nathaniel sent out the alert on e-mail to hundreds of activists around the state. We agreed to call our local newspapers and ask them to call the senator to see if he really intended to carry through with his threat to kill the vote on the $289 million. We contacted religious leaders, AIDS care groups, health care professionals, friends and family and asked them to join — and to pass the word. And the widow of the former governor of Oklahoma agreed to call the senator directly. As a college student, Senator Nickles began his career in politics by volunteering on her husband’s campaign, and she was used to calling the senator by his first name.

On Wednesday morning, an avalanche of calls blanketed the senator’s office. We knew something good was happening when a RESULTS volunteer called Nickles’ office Wednesday afternoon and instead of the receptionist answering “Senator Nickles’ office” she asked “Are you calling about funding AIDS?” Later in the day, a senior aide of the senator’s who usually didn’t return our calls called Nathaniel in Oklahoma City. She said that the senator now had no intention of a organizing a filibuster and he was working on a solution — and would we please stop the calls — our message had gotten through.

On Thursday morning, Senator Nickles met with another powerful senator, Ted Stevens of Alaska, who is chairman of Appropriations. Now Senator Stevens had also heard from the RESULTS groups in Alaska many times about global health issues. Nickles and Stevens came up with a compromise — they located $289 million of unused funds from the Defense budget and agreed that the money could be transferred to the foreign aid budget.

On Thursday afternoon, Nickles allowed a vote on the $289 million increase and the measure passed by an overwhelming 88-to-1 margin.

What a difference grassroots activists can make in 72 hours! Sunday night the increase was dead in the water; by Thursday evening a great victory for millions of AIDS victims had been won. When news of the turnaround got back to the extended network of Oklahoma activists who’d been contacted by e-mail, a lot of messages streamed back filled with joy and a renewed sense of hope of what we could do together.

In December, Oklahoma RESULTS members met with Senator Nickles to thank him for what he’d done. Before, our meetings with him had been rushed and perfunctory and really formal, but this time he thanked us sincerely for our lobbying and for coming to see him. He had been to Africa earlier in the month and for the first time he had seen the AIDS pandemic up close. He wanted to talk about what he’d seen and how proud he was of what the United States aid was doing. The meeting went longer than scheduled and I felt for the first time connected to him in a deep way.

When I look about we happened in those 72 hours, I can barely believe it myself. Other RESULTS volunteers began calling it the “Oklahoma Miracle” and it certainly completely altered what I thought we could accomplish.

But I know now that such “miraculous” results are within the reach of all RESULTS groups. Basically looking back we had these three things working for us all at the same time:

  1. We had healthy RESULTS groups with well-trained volunteers, ready to act with community allies.
  2. We had some key community and media leaders, who would communicate our issues directly to the member of Congress.
  3. We also had an extensive e-mail action network that could respond with a very focused action on short notice.

With a lot of trial and error, we had developed these three forces the in years of work in our communities. But it took Joanne’s phone call to show what their combined power could be.

So, I look forward to seeing this kind of “Oklahoma Miracle” become an everyday event.

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