Poor People’s Campaign confronts lawmakers on eve of key votes
Scenes from the Poor People's Campaign's Oct. 27 event in Washington: At top left, the Revs. William Barber and Liz Theoharis lead the press conference. Bottom left, hunger striker Abby Leedy. Right: The sign says it all; Build Back Better is for the sake of future generations. | Photos via Poor People's Campaign

WASHINGTON—Abby Leedy, 20-year-old hunger striker from Philadelphia, confronted holdout Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., on the eve of key votes before Halloween on Democratic President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

“I ran into Joe Manchin coming out of a meeting with his (campaign) donors,” she told an Oct. 27 press conference at the U.S. Capitol, called by the Poor People’s Campaign before a mass march by the PPC and other organizations to the Supreme Court plaza nearby.

The young activists on hunger strike for climate justice. | @HungerStr1ke via Twitter

“I asked him why he won’t vote for” Biden’s package, said Leedy, in her eighth day of a hunger strike scheduled to end that evening, to dramatize the need to combat climate change. Among other things, Leedy told the West Virginian, “I’m desperate not to let us burn and drown” as a result of the climate change-created increases in fires, floods, and hurricanes.

“He didn’t answer and got in his car.”

One reason for Manchin’s non-answer: The donors he met before Leedy confronted him.

Manchin, the Senate Energy Committee chairman, receives hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars from oil, natural gas, and petrochemical company execs, OpenSecrets.org reports. And though their giving, like their industry, is declining, coal company honchos chip in, too. Coal has been king in West Virginia for decades. And all those firms oppose clean energy legislation, including in the BBB bill.

Manchin’s closed mouth left Leedy to rhetorically turn to Biden. She reminded the president of his campaign promises. The rest, including campaign co-chairs the Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis concentrated on Congress.

“I have a dream of being able to stay in my community in West Philadelphia, and of being able to go to sleep without worrying about the next flood or hurricane or heat wave—or worrying about my dad keeling over from the heat” while he’s out walking, Leedy explained.

“I have a president who said he was going to cut fossil fuel emissions by 50% by 2030…. But I keep hearing these stories that Biden and the Democrats can’t do that because of Joe Manchin.

“So I’m begging my president to do all he can” through executive power, even if Manchin kills the anti-warming measures in the BBB, “because my generation deserves to live.”

The press conference and rally, which also drew other progressive groups to Capitol Hill, came on the eve of key votes on even a stripped down version of the BBB package and an accompanying five-year $974 billion “hard” infrastructure bill.

It also came the day after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres again spoke out on the need for world leaders to combat climate change at the upcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland. A UN report a week before declared its drastic effects are accelerating as coastal cities in most nations are in danger from climate change-caused ocean level rise, and 11 island nations are in peril of completely disappearing under swelling seas.

Despite all this evidence, congressional Republicans plan to unanimously oppose the BBB plan and its climate change measures, though some may vote for infrastructure. The BBB plan would expand Medicare to cover vision, dental, and hearing problems and make paid family and medical leave permanent and nationwide. It also would fund universal pre-K education.

And it would extend the now-monthly child care tax credit and the earned income tax credit, provide $65 billion to both expand home health care and raise health care workers’ wages to $15 an hour, and retrofit schools to be “green” and energy-efficient, among other goals.

Biden wanted to pay for those programs through higher taxes on corporations and the rich, which the other Democratic holdout, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., has vetoed. Other taxes include increases on fossil fuel companies and much higher fines, targeted at CEOs, board members, and other corporate honchos, for breaking labor laws.

The “hard” infrastructure plan would provide money to repair crumbling roads, creaky subways, collapsing bridges, elderly airports, and too-small ports and to replace lead-lined water pipes and rewire an electric grid vulnerable to winter storm-caused blackouts, as occurred in Texas.

Unions, workers, and the Poor People’s Campaign all support all those goals. So, too, do most people in the U.S., opinion polls show. But not congressional Republicans.

That leaves Manchin and Sinema as the key holdouts blocking the BBB in the 50-50 Senate. The other 46 Democrats and both independents support it. The result: Congressional Democrats and Biden are negotiating with each other, often testily.

The point of the press conference and the rally was to get all the Dems on the same page for the BBB bill, especially since, Barber said, workers, the poor and low-wealth people do not have infinite patience or confidence the government will act on their behalf and not favor “corporations and the greedy.”

Added Arizona Working Families Party member Casey Klaus, speaking to Sinema, whose office she slept in front of for three days and two nights: “I love my state and we can’t afford to wait” to battle climate change there and elsewhere.

Arizona is already the 10th hottest state in the U.S., on average, data shows. Its temperatures are rising so high, Klaus said, that “Lake Mead is drying up…. We should not be the last generation to be able to live in Arizona.”

But that’s not what lawmakers are talking about and that gets the PPC members pissed.

“We have been hearing too much” about the numbers in Biden’s BBB plan, Barber said. “The real question is not what the cost would be if we did it, but what the cost would be if we didn’t.”

That cost is more than just money, as “57% of children under the age of six don’t have child care”—and Biden’s bill would provide funds for that. “And millions would be helped with paid family leave.” And millions lost jobs and health care coverage when the coronavirus pandemic closed their employers—especially employers of low-wage workers of color, such as restaurants, vacation theme parks, and home health care.

“What we are talking about is corporate greed, where you treat corporations like people and people like things.”

“The battle to stop BBB and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act is morally indefensible, constitutionally inconsistent, and economically insane,” he told the later rally at the U.S. Supreme Court plaza.

The John Lewis Act would restore some balance in campaign financing, which the High Court’s GOP-named majority stripped in 2010, in a decision equating corporate campaign contributions with those of “persons.” A later ruling by that same bloc of justices dumped limits on individual contributions, too.

“It’s politically incompetent to think you can keep stepping on 40% of this nation”—the poor and low-wealth people—“and not think that at some point we’re not going to rise up and say ‘Hell, no!’ or might I say ‘Heaven, no,’ peacefully,” Barber warned the lawmakers.

“You have shown yourselves, and it has emboldened and intensified our agitation.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.