A group of protesters who demonstrated outside U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s offices every single week for four years had planned to continue their pressure campaign if the Republican senator ran for Pennsylvania governor, as had been widely expected.
The group, Tuesdays With Toomey, didn’t plan what they would have done if he actually became the governor.
“Even that sentence," said Carolyn Stillwell, one of the organizers, "makes me a little sick to my stomach.”
As of Monday, the senator’s most vehement, liberal opponents won’t even have to entertain the idea. Toomey, the only statewide elected Republican in the commonwealth other than judges, announced that he will not seek reelection to the Senate and, in a surprise to the political world, that he won’t run for governor, either. He said he made the announcement Monday to be candid with constituents and donors who called “on an almost daily basis” to offer support for reelection or a move toward Harrisburg.
“Once I made my decision,” Toomey said during a news conference, “I thought it was best to let people know.”
Tuesdays With Toomey isn’t exactly taking credit for his decision but has its own analysis of why he is reentering private life.
“I think that seeing that his actions and policies were enough to make a group of constituents protest him every week for four years, and ongoing, made him see how another statewide campaign would go for him,” Stillwell said.
A nanny from West Philadelphia “inadvertently” started Tuesdays With Toomey a week after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016. She posted in a progressive Facebook group that she would be standing outside Toomey’s Philadelphia office — which at the time was along John F. Kennedy Boulevard in the heart of Center City — shortly after noon on a Tuesday to voice outrage over the beginning of a Trump presidency.
Seven women showed up and met with a member of Toomey’s staff. Protests continued on Tuesdays, and the size of the group has ranged from a handful to hundreds. Their chief demand in those first few months was that the senator hold an in-person town hall meeting in Philadelphia, which he has not done.
The movement grew to have a presence at field offices in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Allentown and Wilkes-Barre. And although protesters still wanted an in-person town hall meeting, they also targeted his stances on health care, immigration, the Supreme Court, guns, the environment, tax reform, and other issues on which the mostly liberal activists disagreed with him.
In February 2017, Philadelphia Police took 11 people into custody after they staged a sit-in at the Center City office. The demonstrators were cited for disorderly conduct and released. Toomey’s office said in a statement after the arrests that the senator was in Washington at the time and staff were not available because they were in the process of moving his offices from Center City to Old City.
Among those cited was Nikil Saval, a Philadelphia activist-turned-politician who in June toppled a three-term state senator in the Democratic primary. He said groups like Tuesdays With Toomey have power in their “theater” — in this case that rejected a senator “deeply committed to the most banal form of Reagan-ite orthodoxy.”
“And so [they] come up with a name ‘Tuesdays With Toomey,’ which is just silly in itself. You’re posing the absurdity of this, that this person feels no compulsion to respond to these people,” he said. “Then it just creates an occasion for all these people, otherwise despairing about what is happening, to come together.”
Members of Toomey’s staff met with protesters in the initial weeks, and the senator in 2017 privately sat down with leaders of the group in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. He also held tele-town hall meetings and took questions from social media live on television. Toomey’s staff now sends representatives to gather cards and letters from the constituents each week who congregate outside his offices.
This has gone on (and on, and on, and on) for nearly four years in the sun, rain, and snow. Stillwell, a 50-year-old graphic designer who lives in South Philly, said one photo encompasses their spirit: It shows protesters in Old City in a 2018 “blizzard,” snow accumulating on their shoulders.
The only thing that shut them down was the coronavirus pandemic. The last in-person demonstration in Philadelphia was the second week of March. Since then, organizers on Tuesdays host virtual demonstrations with a different topic and call-to-action each week.
Their movement has also inspired activists outside Pennsylvania. Stillwell said in wake of Toomey’s decision, for example, activists reached out to see how they, too, could sustain weekly protests at the offices of Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio).
The organizers recommend keeping protests fresh and positive, not just “a group of angry people standing on a corner,” Stillwell said. The leadership team, which rotates, picks varying topics and speakers. When the demonstrations were in-person, people dressed up in costumes, sang songs — a version of “Fly, Eagles, Fly” called “Lie, Toomey, Lie” — and traded articles of progressive victories across the country.
And they say their work isn’t done. Toomey has two more years left, and the protesters say they’ll keep being a thorn in his side.
“Showing up makes a difference,” Stillwell said. “We will hold him accountable. As long as he’s in office, we will be out there.”