Written by Mary Ellen (Mel) Huss
As the sun rose on the morning commuters, I was taking a different route for the work day. Out of Cincinnati and past the 275 loop to meet a bus of local engaged community members for a trip to Columbus for the Death Penalty Lobby Day. While I had likely gone to tour the State Capitol of NJ when I was in grade school, I had realized I had never actually lobbied an elected official. To me, lobbying was something that corporations or special interests groups did; they had money and tried to sway politicians for voting in ways that weren’t how their constituents believed. I was grateful to be a part of this experience to show me that lobbying is in the power of any and every constituent who wants their voice to be heard by those in public office – it just requires time, commitment, and preparation.
Ohioans to Stop Executions (OTSE), the state wide advocacy group for abolition of the death penalty, had spent months working to bring this day together. IJPC and the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Social Action Office were instrumental in mobilizing those in Southwest Ohio to join the day of and collect signatures on a Faith Leader Letter calling for reform. OTSE also organized a comprehensive and quick moving morning program that provided a background on legislation proposed and real stories about how the death penalty impacts families and those on death row.
IJPC was able to share about the work that we do and about Families That Matter (FTM) – an IJPC program recognizing the unique support needed for families who have a loved one on death row. Family members were asked to share their story in “Not Behind Bars but Sentenced for Life” – a book of reflections from members of the FTM program. Lisa Davis, niece of Jerome Campbell, then shared her experience in front of the audience, supported by her sister and her mother.As legislators, clergy, exonerees, and activists spoke, I was astonished with the urgency of each of their statements. Representative Nickie Antonio, a co-sponsor of bipartisan HB 289 for abolition of the death penalty in Ohio, summed it up best: “We are better than our broken system.”
After final instructions, the morning program was over and we were motivated to talk to our elected officials! Folders assembled by OTSE identified groups of constituents and their meeting times with both state representatives and senators. As a Kentucky resident, I tagged along with another group to experience lobbying.
We met with several aides to share packets of information – including the FTM book, handouts
from OTSE, and postcards from constituents asking them to consider legislation to address the Task Force Recommendations. It was powerful to be sitting around a table hearing group members share their reasons for being involved with abolition of the death penalty – from becoming friends with a death row inmate through a penpal program who was then exonerated to being a religious woman who so strongly believed in the moral arguments of abolition
As we got back to the bus after a day of walking, waiting, and talking, many questions still hung in the air. Was the day a success? Were we successful in delivering our message and changing minds? These are hard questions to answer – true success would be any of the bills coming to a positive vote on but there are several things beyond our control for that to happen – pro-death penalty lobbyists, other constituents, previously held beliefs, etc. As a group, we were a small voice bringing a moral argument against a practice that we believe has no justification to be a place in our state government. Still, I am given hope by a favorite Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” On April 12th, we were a small but mighty group of citizens who were committed to ride a school bus up to Columbus to engage in thoughtful, persuasive conversation with the public officials who serve us as constituents.