Food & Water Watch volunteers bird dog New York Governor Cuomo to ban fracking in 2013.
In this year’s democratic presidential debates, candidates have hardly been pressed by moderators on the issue of climate change. So far no questions have been asked about fracking, which needs to be banned for the sake of our climate, while questions were asked regarding flood insurance benefits, carbon taxes and the cost of stemming the climate crisis. So far we've had a discussion of climate change without any focus on how to actually bring emissions down at the rapid pace required.
Of course, this is not a problem unique to presidential candidates. The media devotes little coverage to climate change, and politicians seldom have to answer questions related to the issue. They may make campaign pledges to take environmental action to win votes, but without much attention, how can we hold them accountable?
One effective tactic our organizers use frequently is bird dogging.
What is Bird Dogging?
A bird dog is a dog trained to seek or retrieve birds in hunting. So you can think of bird dogging as hunting for answers from squirmy or inaccessible politicians. Specifically, it is the practice of showing up at a public event to ask an elected official or candidate their stance on an issue and memorializing their answer on the record. It is a tried-and-true tactic in organizers’ and activists’ toolboxes.
Bird dogging is an essential part of our work around the country, as organizers in Florida and New York can attest.
Getting Politicians On Record In Florida
In Florida, our team bird dogs politicians frequently as part of their campaign to ban fracking in the state. Our organizer Brooke Errett explains that there are two main reasons for doing so. The first is to get a politician or office holder on record for where they stand on banning fracking, if their position is either unknown or has not been released publicly. Once our Food & Water Action organizers and activists have gotten a politician on record, they always follow up with a press release so that there’s solid media attention.
This media attention helps with holding them accountable in the future, which is the second major way they use bird dogging in Florida. For example, last year Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told Food & Water Watch volunteer Ginger Goepper on camera that he supported a ban on fracking. While he did move the state to deny fracking permits in January 2019, when it came to publicly advocating for passing a law to ban fracking in the legislature, he backpedaled.
In order to hold him accountable for failing to throw his weight behind legislation, our team has bird dogged him persistently. Errett recounts that “right near the end of the [legislative] session we were really successful, we had 5 bird dogging events in a week, we were at every event he was at” holding signs and asking tough questions.
While a fracking ban wasn’t passed in that legislative session, Errett makes clear that “bird dogging is the most effective way to actually hold somebody accountable because you’re making it public and on the record.” Though politicians still break their promises, it’s much easier for them to do so if there isn’t a public record of it. There would be no public record of Desantis’ stance on fracking had they gotten the commitment in a private meeting.
Volunteers also find the tactic to be exciting. Errett adds that bird dogging feels empowering to her and her volunteers: “in a world where sometimes we feel powerless, this is an area that we still have power because public perception matters."
Picketing Governor Cuomo in New York
In New York, our Food & Water Action organizers mainly use bird dogging in a somewhat different fashion. Rather than getting a politician on record answering a question while cameras roll, they show up to picket with signs, chants and volunteers whenever their target is nearby. In New York, the primary target for their campaigns to move the state off fossil fuels and reject the Williams Pipeline is Governor Andrew Cuomo.
“We picket or bird dog Cuomo every chance we get,” says Food & Water Action organizer Eric Weltman. They set up pickets at a variety of events including fundraisers, press conferences, speeches, bill signings and more. One of the ways that they use these pickets to help their campaigns is to educate the Governor’s supporters and corner him in front of people he wants to think well of him. Making him more vulnerable to pressure, “the [targeted] audience is in some ways as much the people going to the event as him."
Repeatedly showing up wherever the Governor happens to be holds him accountable and demonstrates that he can’t ignore the issues at hand. “It shows our persistence, our tenacity...I think that it’s important for him to see the depth of commitment that we’re willing to show up wherever he is, whenever he is” adds Weltman. This strategy has borne fruit before. During the campaign to ban fracking in New York several years ago, Cuomo was so beset by bird dogging he joked that when pulling up to an event with his daughters, one remarked that they must be at the wrong place because she didn’t see any anti-fracking protesters. Food & Water Action and our coalition partners won that campaign of course, with Cuomo banning fracking in New York in 2014.
When asked about the difference between bird dogging and more conventional tactics such as lobbying, Weltman proclaimed that in the last year “Food & Water Action has probably had as much face time with Cuomo as any insider lobbyist.” Bird dogging gives them a level of exposure to the Governor that would be difficult to achieve otherwise, especially considering the years of insider networking that would be required for powerful lobbying.
While it can be a challenge to figure out where the Governor is going to be (99% of his press notices do not name the specific location), bird dogging is fairly easy to prepare for, according to Weltman. After conducting outreach through text alerts, listservs, and social media, they show up to picket with supporters and signs.
What You Need To Do It
“Preparation is the key to bird dogging” Errett told me. Having learned the hard way, I couldn't agree more. In 2016, a friend and I were recruited to ask Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail to support the Standing Rock Sioux in their battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I arrived over an hour early, and was able to enter the auditorium for a small “Millenials for Hillary” rally. My friend, who arrived just 30 minutes early, was put in a separate overflow room. On my own, I managed to shake her hand and ask my question, but failed to get video of the encounter. So there was no media coverage or viral video, and the event was quickly forgotten (her answer was inconclusive, for those wondering).
Now that we know how not to bird dog, I’ll go over how to do it the right way according to our organizers:
First, you need to figure out where the targeted politician or official is going to be. This takes some strategizing: figuring out who knows who, which people or groups usually get the media advisory first, and networking with those people.
Once you know the location, map it out to determine where the politician might enter and exit, and where they could be cornered for a question. It’s best to have a short and pointed question ready ahead of time, one that you can ask quickly and that they need to answer directly. You will need to bring at least one person with you to film while you ask the question, and more depending on the event space’s layout.
In addition to a charged phone with a video function (and a backup battery just in case), you may want to bring signs to snap a photo with the politician in question. In Florida, you can see one of their organizers getting a photo with DeSantis and a ban fracking sign. For a more detailed how-to, check out their bird dogging guide.
If this sounds exciting to you, it is! You can sign up to be part of our distributed volunteer team and our organizers will coach you every step of the way!