The VICE Channels

    How Pennsylvania’s First Openly Gay State Representative Taught Me to Love Robocalls

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    I couldn’t sleep last night. I lay awake, staring at the ceiling, half-baked ideas whipping around the anxious centrifuge in my skull. The past was bothering me; the terrible and mundane medieval world was bothering me, especially all of the dumb things I had to do in it. Lucky for me, then, that a few short hours after I finally drifted off, I would be awoken by a late-morning political robocall.

    My phone’s alarm app had already gone off two or three times, so I was not completely blindsided when it rang for real. The ring on my iPhone is the semi-popular anachronistic old-timey phone ring, and it is ugly in the morning.

    “Hello?” I said, to silence. “Hello,” I said again, instead of hanging up.

    “Hello, I’m Brian Sims,” a robust and cheery voice said, leaving enough of a pause for me to begin asking him what he wanted. But the voice went on:

    “I am proud to represent our district, and look forward to” something or other that was lost into the ether of my ear as I inferred that the call was prerecorded and lost interest and it was a hazy morning and who knows if that’s actually what he said. I was irked at first, naturally, not yet aware that my blurry eyes were refocusing onto a day unlike any that had come before it.

    “… keeping Philadelphia safe. Again, please call my office anytime at 215-something-something, and I look forward to hearing from you.”

    I had never received a well-meaning robocall from a sitting politician before, you see, and I wasn’t expecting this one to be so simple, pleasant, brief. It turns out that all robo-Brian Sims wanted to do was introduce himself, give me the phone number to his office, and invite me to get in touch. Much nicer than any political robocall I’d ever heard of; robo-politicians are typically trying to scare voters or misdirect them to the wrong polling place so they don’t vote for the other guy. Robo-Sims turned the robocall into a civic outreach tool.

    And it worked. Who is this guy? I thought, reaching for my laptop. His voice was restrained and inoffensive and yuppie but coated with a sheen of effortlessly calculated positivity and he sounded like he was smiling a fake smile he’d smiled so many times that it had finally become his real smile. I could hear that smile over the phone. But I didn’t mind it.

    So I googled Brian Sims, and discovered from the Philly.com headline that popped up top that he was the first openly gay man ever elected to the Pennsylvania state legislature. That he was an ex-college football star, that he is a lifelong LGBT rights advocate, and that he had managed to unseat the long-sitting incumbent favored by the Democratic machine. (I moved to Philadelphia last fall, and since he ran unopposed in the main election, I had not heard his name much then.)

    I was suddenly grateful to robo-Sims for the wakeup call. Robo-Sims did not have to dial my number—I wonder, in hindsight, how he even came to possess it—and he did not have to give me the phone number with which to contact meatspace-Sims. But he did, and he did the same for everyone else in my neighborhood, the innocuously confident voice of an army of robo-Sims echoing in the ears of puzzled constituents as across Philadelphia.

    Robocalls, I realized, do not have to be life-sucking dinnertime disturbances that do their part to help ensure that everyone hates politics. They can, it turns out, be employed to broadcast useful information in a dignified and respectful manner.

    Thanks to this robocall, I am now aware of and more inclined to support Brian Sims. Hearing Sims’ voice over the phone, in a context removed from desperate vote-grubbing variety of election cycle robocalls, felt personal, earnest. I have been honestly and forthrightly civically engaged and am impressed by this man’s resume and ambition. These are minor revelations, but still. Tactful robocalls are an untapped frontier, and one that savvy and good politicians might use to engage their constituents.

    Judging from Sims’ example, a good political robocall must be

    1. Brief.

    2. Informative.

    3. Made during a respectful hour, ideally in the middle of the day.

    4. Contain contact information that the recipient can actually use to respond. If the listener genuinely feels that a two-way dialogue is possible, they will, as I was, become more attentive.

    Mix them all together, and you’ve got a robocall I’d happily take. Who knew? Before this morning, I never thought I’d actually sit through a pre-recorded political robocall without hanging up. Now, I’m actually looking forward to my next session with robo-Sims.