The Devil and Ms. Jansen

And other tales from our least likely lobbyists

What is it about the word lobbyistthat conjures up such despicable images? The very name summons thoughts of corruption and bribery, of slick, highly paid suits hired by giant corporations in pursuit of backroom deals to benefit a privileged few. News stories about them and their role in the political process inevitably seem to include terms like invasion, army, or battalion.

But however unsavory the reputation of lobbyists may be, they are an undeniably entrenched part of our political process. Lobbyists attempt to influence governmental decisions. They work on behalf of certain companies, causes, and special interests. They've been around in the United States since the early 19th Century, when agents would mill around the lobbies of Congress, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting legislators. In 1999, according to the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics, corporations, labor unions, and other large organizations spent $1.45 billion on lobbying.

While there may be fewer "armies" fighting for nonprofits than for corporate interests, there are indeed lobbyists out there who speak on behalf of those who can't speak for themselves. Instead of opting for big salaries, they stand up for their beliefs and advocate for the poor, the infirm, the very old, the very young--people who so often go unnoticed, uncared-for. Like their big-money counterparts, they still try to win politicians' votes, but that's where the similarity ends.

We've chosen six lobbyists, all from different backgrounds and with different areas of expertise, and asked them why they do what they do. There's a mother of six trying to clean up the rural air her kids breathe. There's a self-appointed data-privacy guru who carries his files in a paper bag instead of a briefcase. And a blind woman who strives to help those with impaired vision--not by offering them welfare checks but by teaching them to help themselves.

These advocates and their brethren may not have the numbers or the expense accounts that corporate lobbyists enjoy. But what they do have is boundless energy and passion. And, on occasion, that's all they need to win their wars.

 

THE GOOD SAMARITAN

From the walls lined with photos of her six kids to the playground across the driveway of the nine-acre farmstead, Julie Jansen's home is the epitome of familial affection. But scratch that bucolic veneer and you'll find exhaustion, frustration, and despair. As Jansen bustles from her home office through the kitchen, she rattles off a list of more than two dozen fluffy pets currently roaming the house. The number used to be higher. "We even had chameleons," she says, shaking her head. "They all died because of the air quality out here."

For the past seven years, Jansen has shouted and cried at anyone who will listen, lobbying to protect her family and friends from the pollution caused by 17 giant hog feedlots located in central Minnesota's Renville County, where she has lived all her life. Jansen contends that the feedlots, or more accurately, the surrounding open lagoons that store massive amounts of pig manure, emit extremely high levels of noxious gases that not only stink so badly it's impossible to be outside, but also make animals and humans violently ill.

Jansen and her family bought the farmstead, just outside Olivia, Minnesota, in 1989. Jansen's husband Jeff is a truck driver, and Jansen herself started a daycare on the farm. Then in 1993 the first feedlot was built nearby. Today there are two: One is less than a mile to the southwest; the other--which has 16,000 animals--is a mile and a half to the southeast.

By the summer of 1994, Jansen and her family were often ill, with symptoms from headaches and breathing problems to nausea and diarrhea. On July 4, 1995, the whole family was completely incapacitated by the stench invading the house. Wondering whether methane or other gases in the animal manure caused the sickness, Jansen called the poison-control center. She learned that all of their symptoms could be caused by another gas found in hog manure, hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide could be deadly, and she and her family needed to get out of the house, she was told. They drove 45 minutes to Spicer. By the time they got there, everyone was fine.

"I just started crying," Jansen remembers. "I knew right then that we had been poisoned all those months. When the wind was from the south, we were sick. When the wind was from the north, we were fine."

Jansen tried to enlist the help of the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, hoping that someone would come in and monitor the gas levels. Reluctantly the agencies eventually took some readings, and though they found hydrogen sulfide levels that were more than five times the legal limit, they told Jansen the tests were inconclusive. With the help of neighbors, Jansen rented equipment and began a detailed, standardized protocol to measure the emissions.

Even with her results--measurements in her own backyard and on the lots surrounding the hog farms that regularly indicated illegal levels of hydrogen sulfide--the conglomerates that own the feedlots have received only token punishments, Jansen complains. "We thought [the government] would protect us. But you have to fight for environmental protections--sometimes for a long time," she says. "There's a lot of sad stories in this state."

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