Politics & Government

Betsy DeVos nomination triggers massive phone campaign in North Carolina

The nomination of Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s education secretary nominee, is one vote away from being doomed – and North Carolina senators’ phone lines are being jammed as constituents for and against her plead with lawmakers.

The Senate began debating DeVos’ nomination late Wednesday, with a final vote likely later this week or early next week. Two Republicans, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, said they won’t vote for her. Republicans control 52 of the Senate’s 100 seats, and Vice President Mike Pence breaks ties.

That means one more GOP defection could doom the nomination, as Democrats are expected to unanimously oppose her.

Critics point to DeVos’ push for alternatives to public education, including pushing for more charter schools and allowing taxpayer-funded vouchers to be used at private schools.

Murkowski said it was a personal decision and, in a speech on the Senate floor, added she’d been overwhelmed with calls from constituents against DeVos.

Other Republican lawmakers experienced heavy call volumes. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, in a tweet, advised his constituents to email him instead of calling his office.

The public feedback has been so intense some North Carolinians say they ran into full voicemail boxes or their messages went unreturned when they contacted U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, both N.C. Republicans. Both Burr and Tillis’ offices said they have alternative methods of communication for constituents when phone lines are jammed.

Burr, the senior Republican senator from North Carolina and a member of the committee that approved sending DeVos’ nomination to the Senate floor, described the phone lobbying effort during a hearing Tuesday. He criticized Democrats, specifically Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, for early plotting against DeVos’ nomination and said they didn’t give her qualifications full consideration before coming out against her.

“This was a strategy that was hatched some time ago. . . . That’s why I got all the calls. That’s why my wife gets calls. My son gets calls . . . to deliver a message to me,” Burr said.

Constituents interviewed by McClatchy this week said they’d called Burr and Tillis’ offices on their own, not part of broader, organized anti-DeVos campaign.

Burr likely was inundated with more calls due to his seat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The panel oversees the U.S. Department of Education.

One of those callers is a Charlotte Republican who voted for Burr in November to help him win his third term in the Senate. A former teacher, Kim Muhich says she understands Senate offices may not have the technology to keep up with a massive amount of calls but she was frustrated.

Muhich wanted to tell Burr she generally does support school choice programs – something Burr and DeVos have both championed – but she’s seen charter schools and other educational initiatives falter. Muhich worries school choice programs often don’t actually expand options for low-income families and students who need specialized education.

“I’m pro-school-choice as long as it truly is a choice for all kids,” Muhich said.

Muhich wanted Burr to vote against DeVos’ nomination.

She said she’d called his Washington office several times and was able to leave a message once but did not get a call back. Muhich says she also tried to call Burr’s four district offices in North Carolina but the voicemail was full each time.

A spokesperson for Burr said he takes seriously constituent services and his multiple re-elections to the U.S. House and Senate are owed to “careful attention to casework, particularly with veterans and members of the military.” All Senate offices use the same phone systems. Burr’s office said he also accepts postal mail, emails and comments on social media.

“The office also receives calls from individuals who sadly lack the civility and decorum shared by most North Carolina residents and oftentimes those individuals are from out of state,” a Burr spokesperson said in a statement.

McClatchy called Burr and Tillis’ district offices two days this week.

Two Burr offices – which have fewer staff and operate on appointments only – did not pick up during business hours over the course of two days. There, the voicemails were full and new messages could not be left. The Washington office was available.

In Tillis’ four district offices, McClatchy found voicemail was available in two offices and a person answered the phone during regular business hours at the other two. Tillis’ Washington office was also available during regular business hours.

When phone lines aren’t readily available and voicemail is full, Keylin said, his office recommends constituents email their comment or question via Tillis’ website.

Robin Livingston, a Fayetteville Democrat who wants both N.C. senators to vote against DeVos, said she’s reached Burr’s staff in the past to share her views about gun control legislation but hasn’t been able to get through recently.

“I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt – and I’ll keep calling,” Livingston said.

Another woman who said she couldn’t get through last week wanted to lodge her disapproval of both DeVos and Trump’s refugee freeze, among other issues. Kerry Witzeman, from Raleigh, said she called Burr and Tillis’ offices multiple times between Jan. 26 and Jan. 30.

“First it was just busy. Then, the mailbox was full,” said Witzeman, a former kindergarten literacy aide and school volunteer. “It’s not orchestrated – most of my friends are depressed and numb (to politics). . . . Nobody asked me to call.”

Curtis Tate contributed to this story.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews