Craft of Campaigns S1E12 | Training For Change

S1E12: Hannah Sassaman on making Comcast pay, ensuring your victories stick & planning the next campaign before your current one ends

February 21, 2023

Episode Guests

Hannah Sassaman is the executive director of the People’s Tech Project. She was previously policy director at Movement Alliance Project (MAP), helping to build and shape coalitions and networks working across issues of injustice, particularly around the intersection of technology, race, and inequality. She is also a member of the board of directors of Fight for the Future and a national coordinating committee member of Leftroots. She lives with her family in Philadelphia.

Campaigning to Limit Comcast & Learn the “Inside Game”

By Andrew Willis Garcés 

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In a few months, Philadelphia’s Left power-building ecosystem will try to build on its recent record of electing national-precedent-setting “inside game” allies, like District Attorney Larry Krasner, seeking to elevate even more progressive champions to City Council and the mayor’s office on a visionary People’s Platform. The current City Council has already enacted historic tenant protections, among other initiatives, after pressure from outside game allies. 

But in 2014, as then-Media Mobilizing Project policy director, and People’s Tech Project founder Hannah Sasssaman told me, “we didn’t have much experience working the inside game.” 

The story of how many of the organizers who went on to found the Alliance for a Just Philadelphia — one part of a growing progressive and coordinated left which has already elected several of its own members to City Council — first developed a new ability to navigate the “inside game”, began in part with a campaign to change the city’s relationship to Comcast, one of the country’s top 3 largest cable company, which is headquartered in the city. Over two years of research, basebuilding and campaigning, Media Mobilizing Project and the coalition the group convened forced the company to for the first time provide massively expanded low-cost and free internet and other services to working class neighborhoods that Comcast had long neglected; along with resources to community centers and public school students.

But in 2013, the coming opportunity to force the company to dramatically raise the amount it spent on those neighborhoods wasn’t on anyone’s radar. “A friend of the organization who had gotten a job at the city, came to us at MMP and said, ‘do you know that every fifteen years Comcast has to sign a franchise agreement in order to provide service in the city?’ No one knew about that.” At the time the organization was involved in local labor and education campaigns, and ongoing youth-centered media capacity building work.

One of those campaigns was the fight to win mandatory paid sick days. In 2013 organizations who had been part of the paid sick days coalition realized Comcast was playing a covert role lobbying against the bill. “And we were really surprised by that. This is a big company, they definitely provide some kind of PTO to their own workers,” said Hannah. The organizers learned the company actually penalized workers who drew from their sick leave bank, and also played an outsized role in the local Chamber of Commerce. “Like here in Philadelphia, they sort of ran it from the back,” she said. The more they looked, the more they realized Comcast “had a ton of fingers in the workings of city politics.” For instance, David Cohen, their lead lobbyist at the time, had been chief of staff for former Mayor Ed Rendell and later when he was governor.

They quickly connected the dots from Comcast to other local fights — many of which involved getting corporations to pay their taxes in order to provide badly needed funding for the city’s public schools and other public infrastructure. For instance, the company had successfully pushed for tax abatements for both of their Center City headquarters office towers in recent years. 

And the consequences for Comcast’s neglect were significant factors in the lives of many working class Philadelphians. “So if you were living in Strawberry Mansion or you were living in far South Philadelphia and you were Black or you were an immigrant, it was really, really unlikely that you had broadband internet at your house. And this was in the 2010s. This was at a time when internet was a utility, it was a human right,” said Hannah. 

Media Mobilizing Project organizers realized this was a unique opportunity to change the city’s relationship to a dominant employer, political donor and lobbyist, and improve the material conditions of tens of thousands of people. “And also people hated Comcast. Like, nobody likes the cable company.” They were a great campaign villain. They started to sketch out what would become the CAP Comcast campaign

The group started hosting listening sessions around the city, collecting complaints and frustration with the company’s service, and eventually also began inviting participants to envision what kinds of digital connection and access they wanted in their neighborhoods.

“We came up with a really beautiful vision of what we thought we deserved,” said Hannah. “We thought Comcast should pay its fair, share that they should pay the property taxes that they owed, that they should make sure that every single school in the city of Philadelphia had a fully funded science, technology, engineering, and math teacher, and a technical teacher lead to support the technology in the classrooms, a computer for every kid, free and discount internet for everyone across the city, internships, and then employment for public high school students that were coming out of school.”

While developing a visionary campaign agenda, the group was simultaneously researching the technical process of negotiating the franchise agreement to understand how it worked, and learned that many of their demands would only fit outside of the main agreement text to provide specific services. These additional demands would need to be spelled out in “side letter agreements”, which the group thought at the time they could leverage for the most far-reaching parts of their agenda.

They also consulted with and made sure they were working alongside another group with a stake in the Comcast franchise process – PhillyCAM, a community television station that received resources for their operations from cable franchise agreements. 

The organizers knew they would need to find points of leverage to move councilmembers sympathetic to Comcast, and also find ways to undermine the company’s years-long investment in portraying itself as a charitable corporate citizen. And a unique opportunity presented itself when Comcast announced its intent to merge with Time Warner Cable. In researching the company, they noticed how heavily the CEO, David Cohen, had touted its (unreliable) Internet Essentials program for low-income customers during Congressional hearings on a previous merger, with NBC, and continued to play up its participation in the city’s Martin Luther King, Jr. day of service and donations to local nonprofits.

They also learned the city would hire a contractor to conduct a needs assessment to ask residents about Comcast’s service, and what they’d want to improve. “We were able to have multiple meetings with the head of the Office of Information Technology, a really brilliant guy named Adel Ebeid, to make sure that some of the questions that were asked were open-ended, that meant that communities could literally answer whatever way that they wanted.” Faith, student, teachers and other groups promoted the survey to their contacts, “and something like 96% of people who responded to the question of, ‘Is there anything else you wanna tell us about Comcast?’ said things like, ‘they don’t pay their taxes, they need to pay their fair share, my service is terrible,'” she said. The survey also showed that of the top six cities with Comcast services, Philly’s cost the most and rated the lowest in performance.

By the end of 2014 the group had convened a coalition with visionary demands that had engaged Comcast customers around the city, but rather than publicly present those demands to city officials or Comcast, they decided to begin by using the survey to publicly spotlight the problems that were then only evident to working class customers. “Often that’s an organizing tactic that we do, is we set a positive vision and we lead with that, and instead we led with anger, with ‘This company sucks. They don’t give us what we deserve or need and they’re rich as shit.'” But unleashing that anger hinged on the city’s needs assessment, which Mayor Michael Nutter was refusing to release publicly.

By the beginning of 2015, with less than a year until the end of the existing franchise agreement and the start of the next municipal primary election cycle, the group was starting to run out of time. “And we were like, ‘this data has to come out because the clock is ticking. Like we’re in the 2015 council [election] cycle, and if this franchise doesn’t pass by the end of that cycle, then they’re gonna have to start over under a new mayor, a new council, and we’ll lose all of our momentum.”

Fortunately for the organizers, Comcast was already under national media scrutiny for its attempt to merge with Time Warner and its efforts to undermine federal net neutrality protections. The campaign started to pitch local and national reporters some of the customer horror stories they had collected.

“And so the stories that we were telling [were not good], about how in the city of Philadelphia, their hometown, they won’t even release how good their service is there or how bad it is while they’re trying to merge with this big company,” Hannah said. Coverage from as far away as England made it more difficult for Comcast or the mayor to defend their unwillingness to share the data, with the city finally releasing it in April 2015.

The city held six public hearings on the company’s service over the following two weeks, “and so we were working to bring community members from those neighborhoods into our campaign. And the vast, vast majority of them were like, ‘I can’t afford this service. You suck. I don’t have internet.’ They would sign up to testify and then they would sign up for our next meeting.”

The campaign framing presented during the hearings contradicted Comcast’s charity-minded public image, which organizers knew the company would use to blunt any accusation of being a bad corporate citizen. “There was a pastor, Rev. Greg Holston who was working with the interfaith coalition who, when he got up to testify, he was like, ‘we want change, not charity.’ And that really became the sort of clarion call of what we were putting out.”

Soon afterwards, Mayor Nutter sent the City Council a proposed franchise agreement that looked remarkably similar to the one negotiated fifteen years earlier. “And it wasn’t good enough,” Hannah said. The inside game would begin.

Most of the campaign’s organizers had previously played outside game roles; none of them had significant experience with crafting legislation. Most had attended City Council meetings during mobilizations to support important policy votes, but they hadn’t realized many of those votes were decided an hour earlier, “in a room across the hall called the caucus room,” according to Hannah. “The councilmembers sit around a big wooden table, their staff are running back and forth with blue envelopes, the bills, getting signatures from everyone. And the council president decides what bills are gonna move that day and which aren’t. And the room is filled with lobbyists, like someone from the Builders Association, folks from the Chamber of Commerce. And then we started showing up and we looked real weird.”

The campaign coalition committed itself to learning “how the sausage gets made”, she said, and also used their scouting to start learning the interests of each councilmember. “And then if we couldn’t get a meeting with someone, we would be able to have that meeting or at least get it booked right there, right then, like ducking down on our knees, sitting next to the council member who was sitting around the table and just like, watching which bills moved, watching what didn’t, really getting a critical week-after-week analysis of what was happening.”

At the same time as they were studying the policymaking process, even before publicly launching their campaign, CAP Campaign organizers had been scouting for potential “champions” on the council. A former electrical workers’ union leader, Bobby Henon, who chaired the committee through which the agreement would be vetted before going on to the full council, agreed that the issue was important enough to his constituents for him to sign-on to the campaign’s demands. The group brought Comcast customers to many of these early scouting and lobby meetings. “We would go to Jannie Blackwell’s office, who was the councilmember representing the third district, which is like all of West Philadelphia. And we would bring in senior citizens and business members from up Lancaster Avenue, which is one of the major commercial corridors of West Philadelphia. And they would say, ‘Jannie, we can’t get internet in our building. They just won’t provide it. We still have to use dial up.’ And the business members would say, ‘we can’t even get residential Comcast service, let alone commercial service.'” 

After launching the campaign MMP kept up the drumbeat of lobby visits throughout the summer. “Just like, the real meat and potatoes work,” said Hannah. Some of the organizers, more comfortable with the outside game, suggested spending more capacity villainizing Comcast’s CEO. “I had an organizer, one of the things he wanted to do was build a big puppet of David Cohen looking like a chump and take it to the Comcast building at 17th and JFK. And I said, ‘Why? What will that get us? What we have is the incredible human dignity and clear demands of long-term generational residents of Philadelphia.’ And I will say that worked extremely well.”

They needed to win the support of nine councilmembers, or twelve to override a potential veto by the mayor, “which we didn’t think would happen,” she said. In addition to Henon, another councilmember who had supported the paid sick days campaign, Bill Greenlee helped the group develop talking points that might sway a few others. But after a summer of initial public campaign activities they still only had five solid “yes” votes, which Hannah attributed to the relative audacity of their demands, which hinged on including unusual community-based demands into the franchise agreement’s side letters.

While the organizers made the case politically, by bringing councilmembers into contact with their constituents, they also worked to assure council staff what they were asking for would withstand legal challenges. “We were working with these offices to get them to say that, yes, that they would vote for that, and it would consistently go back and forth. Like we would have to get things approved by the Law Department, which would look at some of the things that we were demanding and be like, ‘oh, this is legal to ask for, this is not legal.’ We would have to decide, do we keep demanding that or do we take it off in order to narrow and focus on what we can get put into these side letters?”

As the group lobbied and negotiated with councilmembers they had to contend with how to narrow or add to their demands to bring on more “yes” votes. “We started with really expansive demands, particularly around public education. Pay for a teacher in every school that is able to focus on tech, pay for a laptop for every kid, demands like that. Those ended up not being as viable in the long term,” she said. But significant expansion of cheap, reliable internet to hundreds of thousands of more Philadelphians remained a “non-negotiable”. “And what was really exciting about that is that we didn’t have to decide that on the fly, because we had a couple of years old [coalition] table that was really focused on the vision of the campaign,” said Hannah.

Another two demands inserted into the side letters came from an assessment of what would earn them more “yes” votes. Several councilmembers, Hannah said, were “really pissed off” about Comcast’s rule that in order to sign up for the low-cost internet service, if you were already a Comcast customer, “you had to agree to turn off your internet for ninety days. And the reason they do that is so they can claim you as a new adopter for their beautiful charity numbers showing how amazing they are at getting poor people online. Isn’t that nice? And that really angered these councilmembers.”

Organizers also realized a demand to ensure all of the city’s recreation centers had reliable internet would also bring more councilmembers onboard. “There were rec centers in the city that didn’t have an email address, let alone internet access for their staff and for community and young people coming in,” she said.

Week after week, the group assessed potential “yes” votes and what would move them closer to adopting the campaign’s demands. “We just kept sending in their own constituents, and we would keep having our regular meetings. Like we would learn, ‘okay, this demand isn’t going to work. Do we all agree that it’s okay to remove that one and to double down on another?’ We just had this sort of machine that was bringing in really organized community power into the knockdown sausage making of a deep negotiation that had never been run that way.”

And in the fall of 2015, the coming Spring 2016 primary election turbocharged their efforts to “count to nine” votes by the end of the year, with several sitting councilmembers seeking re-endorsement elections or competing to succeed Mayor Michael Nutter. “So we started talking to candidates as much as we were talking to people on the inside and being like, ‘this is what we want. If you were elected, would you make sure that Comcast did everything that we demand?'” Then-Councilmember Jim Kenney was running for mayor. “After we pushed him, he started saying that he supports the demands that we were putting out and wanted a fair franchise agreement for the city of Philadelphia.” Other candidates, like Helen Gym, also incorporated the campaign’s demands into their platforms.

Hannah pointed out the campaign also benefited from journalists who prioritized the stories their work with Comcast customers generated, like a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist who devoted numerous articles to the subject. “Like he would attend one of the public hearings and talk about a far northeast family of retirees that couldn’t afford their service.”

The constant spotlight on issues raised by the campaign, consistent contact between constituents and councilmembers and the election served to blunt the effectiveness of the company’s opposition. “Eventually Comcast started to trot out folks that they had funded and paid to speak and it would be like important community organizations. But it was so clear to us, to the press, to the council members that those folks were scared of Comcast, like scared of not getting their donations anymore, that they just didn’t seem live or powerful.”

The campaign entered its final phase in November, with hearings on the proposed agreement, and a vote possible at any time. “And we would pack the room every time. We would have between, depending on the day, between thirty or a hundred people there.” Their work to inoculate councilmembers against Comcast’s arguments and convince them of the possibilities of using the side letters in a precedent-setting way paid off. “The head of the entire Northeast region for Comcast was standing in front of the council president on the microphone testifying, right? And the council president said, ‘I’m looking at these side letters and they don’t seem enforceable. Like they’re not actually written into the franchise where you are legally bound by them. Is that right?’ And the guy was like, ‘yeah, that’s right.’ And then the council president is like, ‘why should I believe anything you say?’ And the guy from Comcast was like, ‘we’ve never broken a side letter agreement before.’ And the council president was like, ‘do you commit right now on the record that you are not gonna break these side letter agreements?’ I think he eventually forced him to say yes.”

The campaign’s nonnegotiable demands were included in the final agreement side letters approved by the council the following month, in the last possible Council session before the franchise expiration. “It was not the prettiest tied-in-a-bow win, but we got it,” Hannah said. In addition to a significant expansion of the company’s low-cost or free internet service, and elimination of the 90-day window penalizing existing Comcast customers, they won a new grant-making policy table that still allocates public and private funding to community organizations offering digital inclusion programs. The contract also included a goal of hiring 50 to 100 students from the school district’s Career and Technical Education program, as well as a promise to pay Comcast workers at least $12.50/hr, lower than the $15/hour the campaign had demanded.

Directly following the CAP Campaign’s victory cities negotiating their own franchise agreements began to “look over their shoulder at us,” as Hannah put it, inspiring new coalitions or City Council assertiveness in Seattle, Detroit and Boston that won additional concessions during their negotiations. 

But the campaign fell short of its goals to force the company to pay more corporate taxes to shore up the city’s public school system, to more permanently correct the reality that the company’s discounts and charitable donations don’t make up for the many tax breaks it receives. “We never stopped saying that”, Hannah said, “but the demands that we knew were gonna be the most material that folks could really benefit from, were getting free and discount internet to the vast majority of poor people in the city of Philadelphia.”

Lessons for Organizers

Hannah says campaign organizers learned a number of lessons that continue to shape the city’s progressive movements today. In the years after the franchise renewal organizers would learn that some of the side letter commitments were difficult to enforce, despite promises made during a public hearing. “And so what that’s meant is, that Comcast has consistently claimed, ‘oh, we’re doing everything in the side letters.’ But we would ask them for evidence or the city would ask them, they’d say, ‘we can’t provide you with that evidence because it’s a trade secret.’ We probably should have known that,” she said. 

She attributes part of their inability to hold them to the agreements to not holding the campaign coalition together to assure the side letters’ implementation. They moved on to other campaigns; and MAP went through a rigorous strategy process that spun off  People’s Tech Project, which she now leads, to build on the lessons from CAP Comcast and from other tech justice work, including campaigns to limit the use of algorithmic assessment tools in criminal-legal system decision-making. And she says instead of moving on, she wishes the coalition had done a deeper assessment of the kind of collective power they wanted to build in the city long-term, and what opportunities made the most sense for the city’s movement ecosystem. 

But she points out the campaign shifted the posture of elected officials towards some of the city’s largest corporations, resulting in more intense scrutiny of companies like Comcast and Verizon, who would be asked at Council hearings, “have you done this? Like, you owe us this. There’s a lot less fear of the power of a big corporation in the building because Comcast [before] would threaten to leave the city all the time.” 

One campaign ripple effect she identified was the subsequent formation of the Alliance for Just Philadelphia, whose forty-plus organizational members convened following electoral and issue-based campaign “experiments” like CAP Comcast and Larry Krasner’s 2017 election bid. 

None of these projects were, or are, perfect.  But, she says, the campaign taught many the importance of coordinating in larger, more permanent coalition tables, to build the practice of principled struggle to ground their strategies in shared analyses of the conditions they face.