The weekend after a man fired his rifle inside Comet Ping Pong, the Chevy Chase pizzeria was swarmed by customers and reporters. Crowds occasionally stretched out the door, and people left signs reading “stop the hatred” and “we’re still here” out front.
An online campaign might have brought the conspiracy-minded gunman to the restaurant, but another online campaign brought many more there to rally against the fake news. A “Stand With Comet” Facebook event set up the day of the shooting (in which no one was injured) garnered more than 2,000 RSVPs with an additional 4,000-plus people interested. The man behind that event doesn’t have any affiliation with Comet Ping Pong. Erick Sanchez just likes the pizza.
If he sounds familiar, that’s because the political consultant’s name keeps popping up again and again next to online campaigns gone viral. Last year, Sanchez started a petition calling on José Andrés to pull out of the Trump hotel. (The chef, already considering a split, made the move less than a week later.) And after the election, Sanchez organized a “Thank You, Uncle Joe” rally outside the Vice President’s residence. (Joe Biden unexpectedly got out of his motorcade to greet his fans.)
Washington is full of political and PR types handy with hashtag. But Sanchez seems to have a real knack for tapping into the local zeitgeist, particularly when it comes to the intersection of hometown DC and official Washington.
And it all started because Sanchez wanted Kenny Loggins —yes, he of “Footloose” fame—to perform in his Capitol Hill living room. Last year, Sanchez, a soft-rock fan, saw that the singer/songwriter was crowdfunding his next album on Kickstarter. For $30,000, Loggins promised a private concert in someone’s home. So, Sanchez started his own Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds.
What started off as a joke posted on Facebook and Twitter quickly snowballed into media blitz. Before he knew it, he was doing local news interviews and appearing in USA Today. Even Loggins gave some money. Then, he landed on the Jimmy Kimmel Live!. “What will you do if Kenny comes to your living room and refuses to leave?” Kimmel asked. “As long as he would meet me halfway on rent, I’d be just fine,” Sanchez replied.
Sanchez exceeded his goal, and Loggins ended up performing in his parents’ Oakton, Virginia living room rather than his own in order to accommodate the 100-person crowd, which included contributors to his campaign and more reporters.
“In the end when we ran the metrics of everything, it generated over a million dollars worth of earned media for him,” Sanchez says.
The fact that Sanchez bothered to figure that out tells you a little something about his day job. He works for Frontier Solutions, a communications and government affairs firm where he’s currently helping teachers around the country run for public office. He comes a decade in Democratic politics, including stints as a field organizer for a state senate candidate in Virginia, a press secretary and (social media manager) for Ohio congressman Tim Ryan (who unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi for leadership of House Democrats), and communications specialist for a labor union. His first real online campaign was helping to organize a rally for then Senator Barack Obama as a George Mason University student in 2006.
Sanchez’ online feats of the past two years have been more recreational than professional though. After the thrill of his Loggins campaign, he was compelled to find other ways he could impact the community. He quickly saw one with Andrés. His Change.org petition calling on the chef to “dump Trump” ultimately got 2,766 signatures and press from the Washington Post, Fox News, The Hill, and others. Sanchez had reached out to many of the same press contacts he’d met through the Loggins campaign, and he made a point to do every single interview.
After Andrés actually did back out of the hotel, Sanchez transformed the campaign into a victory page, calling on supporters to go and eat at Andrés’ restaurants. “People were doing it. Throughout the weekend, I’d see Twitter posts of people doing selfies at the restaurant and they’d use the hashtag,” he says. He later submitted an affidavit in support of Andrés in his restaurant group’s lawsuit with the Trump organization.
Sanchez turned his attention to organizing a couple small anti-Trump protests, including one on the day of the GOP caucus in DC. After Trump’s victory, Sanchez recalls a “landfill of sadness” on his Facebook feed. He felt it was time for some Loggins-style positivity again. He knew that someone had organized a big rally to thank Obama in front of the White House on the day before Trump’s inauguration. But nobody had done anything for Biden.
So, Sanchez rallied a couple dozen people to stand in front of the Vice President’s residence on a Tuesday morning in late November. When he organized it, Sanchez didn’t even know if Biden would be in town. He got in touch with some members of Biden’s team to tell them about his plans but had no expectations. The day of, Sanchez wore aviators and a “Bro Biden” T-shirt with the VP lifting weights and held a sign that said, ‘Don’t pack, Joe.’”
As the Vice President’s motorcade exited the residence, it slowed down and the crowd started shouting “Uncle Joe!” Biden, surrounded by Secret Service, made his way to group for a little pep talk: “We’ve got to give this other administration a chance. That’s the way democracy works,” he told them, adding, “But I’ll tell you what, we will have ice cream together.”
Sanchez thought his side gig of online organizing was done for the year—until he heard about the gunman at Comet Ping Pong. At this point, he’d become a pro at jumping into action. He set up the “Stand With Comet” Facebook on his phone in an Uber. Only after that did he and a friend coordinate with the restaurant and ultimately extend the show of support through the weekend.
His involvement also made him a target of the conspiracy folks who’ve been harassing Comet Ping Pong and neighboring businesses. A message board thread theorized that Comet hired him to cover up the “scandal” because of his Democratic political ties. “This is kind of a part of putting yourself out there and standing up for a cause like this,” he says. “To them, it’s all a setup… The very least that we can do at this point is get the rationally minded together.”
Sanchez says his online campaigns haven’t brought him clients, but they have helped build his relationships with media and hone communication skills he actually does use in his job. Not that that’s why he does it.
“There is a high that comes from seeing these through,” Sanchez says. “It becomes a second job a little bit that I’m not getting paid to do, but I’m thrilled and honored to do it.”