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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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Copyright   Roger N. Meyer


    For those readers interested in citizen lobbying, it's one thing to say, "Adopt a legislator"; quite another to go about the business of doing it. If you are lucky enough to have a sympathetic legislator who knows you and can carry your issues, you don't need to adopt that legislator, but you do need to touch bases. Personal referrals to another legislator -- your adoptee -- come from your legislator, or if you are very lucky and skilled in this process, from one staffer to another while the legislature is in session.

Rule No. 1. Start easy.

    You know who your legislators are for your district. By consulting this list you can visit their official web site. Click under "committees" and you will see their full range of committee membership. Verify their membership by either Emailing or calling their office. This is a more accurate way of keeping track than by checking the lists of committee members posted by the clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate. Sometimes those changes are posted to their lists a little later than when members are actually appointed or removed by their chambers' leaders.

Rule No. 2. Know what you are doing. Get to know your own district delegates first.

    If your legislator is not familiar with your issues, stop and go no further. Even before you meet your legislator, hook up with his/her staff person. You shouldn't adopt another legislator unless you have developed a personal relationship with the staffer, followed by a personal relationship with your own representative and senator. If you were to approach a legislator not from your district, the first question s/he would ask is whether you have discussed your concerns with your own district delegates. If you make this approach when the legislature is in session, the other person expects you to have first contacted your own delegate's staff and then your delegate from that same chamber in person.

    While the legislature is in session, your first best contact will be the staff person. That person is likely to know the legislator's schedule better than the legislator him/herself. That's their job. During the interim, some delegates are lucky to have someone to act as a staff person. Most don't. In the latter case, contact your legislator directly and request a face-to-face meeting in person.

Rule No. 3. Prepare Yourself; Keep Things Simple.

    If this is your first contact with a legislator, start with the staff person. Even if it is to be your fifteenth contact, when the legislature is in session and unless you have made private arrangements otherwise, always contact your delegate through his/her staff.

    Do not use the kitchen sink approach. You will lose focus. Your contact person doesn't have time for a life story. Before you prepare anything in writing, rehearse a thirty second opening speech out loud. Use plain English with no acronyms. If you can't do that, stop. Get a grip on yourself and rehearse until you can introduce yourself and your prime issue in thirty seconds' worth of words. At most, your issue should have two or three high points. If you have more, you aren't focused. You will "blow it.

    Simple. Simple. Simple. Boil your issues down to key words and key phrases. It's your job to make sure everyone in your lobbying effort is on the same page. If you are presenting a "cause issue" make sure everyone lobbying for the cause uses the same catchwords and phrases. Words in the ear and words on paper must mesh. (See below about putting things in writing.) The worst thing to happen in discussions between sympathetic legislators is for them to be of one mind but using different phrases among themselves and in discussing your issue with other legislators who aren't "in the know." In the ideal world, you want them all to be using your words and phrases.

    Expect the first meeting to be short. In session or out, legislators are busy people. This same fact is true of the staff person. Be respectful of their time. Once they get to know you, they will set the terms for demands on their time. Be mindful of their body language and non-verbal cues. If you sense discomfort from these cues or their own words, you've already lost the game. They may have started to think of you as a person who doesn't get to the point, or worse yet, wastes their time because you don't have your act together and don't know how to value yours. This is a hard first impression to reverse. Don't give them the chance to have a bad first impression. It will cost you. It may cost your cause.

    Listen actively. Listen. Listen. Listen. Think of your first face-to-face meeting as an exchange. Remember the rules of reciprocal conversation. Practice your presentation before other critical listeners. Even as you speak, ask yourself whether you are open to observing and hearing what the other person has said and is about to do or say. Ask your "coaches" for honest feedback. If you really want it, they'll give it to you. This same rule holds true for the real event. The person you are speaking with is giving you feedback all the time. Learn to be aware of it. Do not speak from a position of authority or knowing it all. You probably do, but acting as though you do before a perfect stranger will get you in deep trouble. Above all other considerations, remember that you are an invited guest. Even though you are there to inform, you are also there to learn. Remember that the person you speak with is an authority as well -- they are an authority on the political process. You are the student. A meaningful first visit is characterized by a parting where both parties have learned more about one another. This is the "personal" of politics. If you want to learn more about how the system operates and how your legislator "works" in all ways, don't let pushing your message get in the way of being open to correction and even learning more about your own topic.

    Be in control. This applies to your personal demeanor, what you say, your priorities, and your agenda. This means your whole "first impression package" -- what you wear, the tone of your voice and your choice of words. This means no whining, no histrionics and no theatrics. Leave your "demonstrator" outside. That person doesn't belong in a legislative chamber or in a legislator's private office whether in-session or during the interim. If you are used to wearing both hats -- that of a cause advocate as well as a cause "activist" -- make sure you are in the right place, psychologically as well as physically, for each activity. You must compartmentalize yourself in this one instance. If you can't do that now, get some training so you can. If you don't believe that training works, consider the training sessions conducted by cause advocates before and during major historical national civil rights movement actions. If you lose control of any one of these factors, it will be hard to later repair the damage.

Rule 4. Your Written Words -- All of Them -- Leave a Lasting Impression.

    For the First Meeting. Writing is an art form. Once you have made an appointment, precede your visit with written material. Restrict your written materials to two or three pages at most. The first paragraph of your material should be your introduction. Keep it short. If your material is the same as that handed to other legislators by other cause advocates, make sure your introductory paragraph is personal. If you don't appear to be an interesting, involved person, your cause, no matter how righteous, may appear boring as well. While every constituent has a "right" to access legislators, those who make a lasting impression do it well.

    Send simple, focused material about one issue at a time. It should follow the outline of your presentation in person. Unless the staff person or the legislator tells you otherwise, if you have more than one major concern, arrange separate meetings for those issues. If your written material comes across with different issues or a "different message," your first in-person visit will leave a confusing impression. As a result, the staffer or the legislator may not look forward to the next meeting with you.

    Tough Language. If you wish to discuss current legislation or business of the legislator's committee(s), your written material should reference any bills or resolutions by number and date. The same is true for any statutes, regulations, written policies and directives. Make no assumptions about what your legislator knows. If there are acronyms in the title of the materials, accurately write out their full word referents. If you expect your material to end up in the hands of those who do not know what your legislator knows, help him/her out by keeping your material readable. The legislator does not have time to convert arcane language. You must do that. If you can't do that, master the art of using simple words to accomplish the same purpose as obscure language. It's OK not to know all the details, but know the outline of your materials. If you are asked for further details during your meeting, have the name and contact information of someone who does know the details ready. Chances are, that person may be prepared to give testimony and make committee appearances. However, don't "drop their names" without having first received their permission to do so. No one likes surprises.

    For the first and subsequent meetings, do not reproduce referenced material unless the staff person cannot easily obtain it. Even so, bring that material with you to the meeting. Do not send it ahead of time unless this is a follow-up meeting and you know the person is prepared to receive it because you have asked them.

    The one word that describes a staff person and a legislator while the session is open is "overworked." Do not add to their workload by providing material they cannot process unless it is their job to do so. Only by getting to know the staff person and the legislator will you know what their job is.

    Written Materials Through "Your" Pipeline. For the first meeting, you may be tempted to bring a lot of written materials. Don't. There is time for that later once the staff person or legislator gets to know you as a reliable person and a good resource person. The materials you bring on your visit should be "your" materials. Do not bring official documents that are commonly available to the staff person or legislator. There is an entire support system built into the legislature for that. If there are hard to obtain materials critical to your presentation, it's OK to bring them. Don't be surprised if the person you first speak with declines to accept voluminous material. Remember "overworked."

    Strategy. What you bring with you should be every bit as succinct as your introductory package you sent ahead. It may go into detail further, but if you are a cause advocate, make sure every citizen lobbyist from your cause uses the same materials. If your "cause" hasn't gotten together to create uniform written materials for presentation at this point of the lobbying process, those who are leading should re-think their strategy for the current session of the legislature. "Re-thinking" may involve a gathering of the eagles and clarification of your purpose. It may involve moving the timetable for certain goals further back. If none of these issues have been addressed to date, as an individual citizen lobbyist you have every right to ask your colleagues where and who is your personal back up.

    If you don't have a clear answer to this question, stop.

Rule 5. Seeing the Connection: The Personal is the Political.

    The whole purpose of your citizen lobbying effort has just changed. Assuming your colleagues are not ready for a unified push, your mission may simply be to get to know your legislator better, and to introduce your issues. Assuring them that other citizens share your concerns is good kitchen-table politics. They will appreciate that you know the difference between this level of politicking and hardball, and that you don't expect that much from them. After all, this is how many of them started in the political game.

    If you approach your dilemma with humility, you may find a sympathetic staff person or legislator willing to part the waves for you and introduce you to your objective, your "adoptee." You may not be able to get this next meeting until the legislative session is over and the other legislator is free of the hurry-burry of the session. This is perfectly fine. Maybe you can visit them "without the papers". The introduction may be more personal than you expect. That may be because being visited by someone who doesn't have a demand to place on them may be a personal relief for a colleague tired of dealing with power brokers and professional lobbyists. There may be family members touched by your same issues. Here is where the personal stories of legislators, their private passions may come into play. This may be where the real bonds of an informal relationship may start. There may be personal sharing of resources.

    It's also possible that you will be able to meet the people the legislator has left at home as his or her support system. If your issues "click" with the legislator's family or community connections, you may find yourself developing a personal relationship with people you didn't expect to meet, but who are nevertheless pivotal in the life of this busy adoptee.

    There is nothing underhanded about this. The trick for you, the erstwhile citizen lobbyist, is to keep your eyes on the prize but to recognize the fine details of forming partnerships. This, too, is grassroots politics.

    The Formal Referral to an Adoptee. Whether you have made it to first base with your district legislators as a part of an orchestrated citizen lobbying effort or as a personal crusade with future political implications, you can be referred on to a legislator who isn't in your district. The referral may come from your delegate's staff after they've gotten to know you. The staff person may know of a newfound or ongoing relationship between his/her boss and another legislator.

    The dynamic for a successful referral is always the same: There must be a personal connection between the two legislators. It may have little or nothing to do with your issues. In fact, that's often the case. They may share the same legislative or personal interests. They may have traded favors and votes to get legislative attention to an individual or common piece of work through a committee or adopted by their chamber. They may have friends, donors, or acquaintances in common. They may have family ties. They may have connections that no one knows about, but that are meaningful and that exist outside of their roles as legislators.

    One thing that makes the referral work: The legislator has developed a sense of trust in you, and is willing to "hand you on" to someone you don't know. That legislator trusts that the connections/he enjoys with that stranger you won't be threatened by you. The connection may even be augmented in ways you don't understand. For you, these background issues aren't important, at least not right away. Because of your having made a personal connection with your legislator, s/he has opened himself up to a hope all three of you may share.

    The Hand Off. As you follow up on the referral, it is important that you observe each of the rules outlined above. Just because the referral is a personal act doesn't lessen its political character. If you remember just what has led to the referral, you will do fine. An additional point of etiquette is important to note. You have just been done a favor. Don't forget to acknowledge it with a written thank you.

    Once you make the connection with your adoptee, your legislator may or may not be interested in knowing how things are going with you and your new friend. In your parting moments with your legislator, ask. This is not considered a rude question at all. The answer will provide you with one more bit of inside information that has just become a part of your relationship with both politicians. The answer is something you can take to your personal bank. It can be added to your other assets, some of which are personal, others of which are purely political, and most of which are mixed in character.

    One final point of etiquette. It goes to the title of Rule No. 5. Once you start on this road of connections, the personal has become the political. How you share the information you gain, whether it is by dropping names or revealing material expected to be shared in confidence establishes your credibility as a political actor. Use this information wisely.

    You have just become a politician.

Copyright Issues


This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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