22 July 2010

Beverly Eckert and her sisters: citizen advocates fighting for the average American

Washington is awash in lobbyists.

Wealthy corporations and groups funnel rivers of cash to slick lawyers, former Congressmen and well-connected ex-government officials to grease the skids of special interest political influence. It is a story as old as politics itself, and too often it results in policies that benefit the rich and powerful rather than promoting the high ideal of government of the people, by the people and for the people.

That is why the story of Beverly Eckert and her fellow 9/11 family members is so compelling. Average citizens faced with an epic catastrophe responded by almost singlehandedly compelling the government to better protect its citizens. Without the commitment, skill, and persistence of the family members, the system that allowed 9/11 to happen would have continued to function for the most part in its old, dysfunctional way.

(And even after intelligence reforms were passed, the bureaucracy and private corporations have found new ways to put their interests above those of the nation, and once again make us all vulnerable to future attacks, as reported in a special Washington Post series this week.)

Now comes an update on the similar reform work by family members of Flight 3407, including Beverly's sister's Karen Eckert and Susan Bourque. In it, Associate Press reporter Joan Lowy describes exactly how this latest effective band of citizen advocates were able to convince members of Congress for the need to improve airline safety:

As a group, they have made more than 30 lobbying trips to Washington at their own expense over the past 17 months since the crash in Buffalo, N.Y., united them in grief — with a determination to try to fix what had gone wrong.

They've met with 88 senators or their staffs, and two dozen House members or their aides — many of them more than once. They've attended every congressional hearing with any connection to aviation safety. They've watched from the House and Senate visitor galleries as lawmakers debated reforms, an unmistakable island of red sweaters, ties and jackets — their chosen color — with photos of their loved ones pinned to their chests.

In March, when Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., threatened to block a vote on the bill because he objected to a labor provision affecting FedEx Corp., which is headquartered in his state, about 20 family members descended on his office. In a tense meeting with Corker's chief of staff, they demanded he explain why the senator was putting the interests of a company ahead of safety. They held out pictures of the loved ones they'd lost, told of the children who would grow up without fathers.

Ten minutes after the meeting ended, family members were still standing outside Corker's office trying to decide what to do next when an aide called them back in to tell them Corker had reached a compromise with Democratic leaders. The threat to block the bill had been dropped for the moment. Family members don't take credit for Corker's decision, but they say they believe their actions helped.

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