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Welcome to Be The Change, a series on grassroots activism, community organizing, and the fundamentals of fighting for justice. Primarily instructional and sometimes theoretical, this series creates space to share tips, learn skills, and discuss “walking the walk” as intersectional queer feminists.
It’s 2019 and we’ve got a new Congress in the U.S., y’all! Not only that, it’s the most diverse Congress in this nation’s history. We have the very first openly bisexual Senator, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, (previously the first openly bisexual congressional member ever and also a person I’m kind of in love with right now). We have Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. We have Rep. Sharice Davids and Rep. Deb Haaland, the first two Native American congresswomen. Overall, the 116th U.S. Congress has history-making numbers of women, women of color, openly LGBT members, and millennials.
At the state and local level, we also saw women, queer, and trans candidates run and win in the last few election cycles. Rep. Lisa Bunker and Rep. Gerri Cannon, both openly trans women, won seats in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, joining Rep. Danica Roem in Virginia as the only openly transgender electeds to serve in a state legislature. There were many ground-breaking campaigns in 2018 that didn’t win, but opened the hearts and minds and imaginations of many of us about what it means when “people like us” stake claim to political power.
Now, though, we have a job to do and that’s to hold our elected officials accountable. Yes, the ones we support and the ones we definitely do not. No matter how you feel about the political process, the reality is that the people we elect at our local, state, and national offices make our laws and affect our lives. The other reality is that, regardless of whether you voted for them, elected officials work for you, for the people, for their constituents. The most important part of their job is to listen to and fight for the people they were elected to serve a.k.a. you and me.
A lot of people find the word “lobbying” intimidating. It evokes images of expensive power suits and Oliva Pope-like strategizing and arm-twisting. Or maybe it evokes images of greasy men sliding big checks under the table and making private golf course devil’s bargains. While the business of politics certainly is messy and often infuriating, lobbying your elected officials is actually quite simple. Anyone can and should talk to their legislators. Here’s a straightforward guide to make you into a high powered lobby leader. Ready your power suit!
Note: There is a difference between the activity of lobbying and being a paid lobbyist, someone whose job or part of their job is to lobby elected officials, and who has to follow laws and policies specific to professional lobbyists. This guide is for everyone, but primarily targeted towards a volunteer or regular unpaid person who is engaging in lobbying (the activity, not as a profession), which is simply communicating with your elected official verbally or in writing.
Before the Lobby Meeting
Choose a Topic – First things first, decide what issue, law, bill, or topic you want to lobby on. That will help you figure out who you should talk to. For issues that are local, it might be your city council or town board. For federal issues, it might be your reps in Congress. For issues in your school district, it might be your school board.
Find Your Reps – After you know what you want to talk about, you need to find out who represents you. Representative represent the constituents in their district, in the area that they are elected to serve. Common Cause’s Find Your Representatives tool is a good place to start to find out which elected officials represent you and how to contact them.
Do Your Prep – This is the fun part, if you’re a weirdo like me. Now’s the time to research your issue or bill and develop your message points. What are the reasons to support your issue? Why should your particular representative care? Look into your elected official, too. Where did they go to school? Where do they live now? What groups and issues do they typically support? Do you have any personal ties to them through mutual friends or interests? Does your elected official have any particular affiliations or committee roles or relationships that might make them supportive? Have they voted on similar legislation or taken a position on similar issues in the past? Do a little deep internet research. It’s not creepy, I swear.
Make an Appointment – You’re ready to make an appointment! To make a meeting, you simply call the office. (Local electeds usually have contact info on your local government website. For state and federal electeds, there is likely an office somewhat close to where you live, called a district office, and an office in the capitol building(s). Call either office number and say you’d like to schedule a meeting. very elected’s office is going to have their own way of handling lobby visit scheduling, but it should be pretty straightforward. You will likely need to provide them with your contact info, a list of the people attending the visit and their affiliations (if any), and the topic for the visit.
Strategize For the Meeting – This is especially helpful if you’re going in with a group of people. Before the meeting, even if it’s just a few moments before, find a little time to go over the issue, where you think your elected will be on it or what everyone needs to know about the elected official, figure out who is going to speak and about what, assign who is going to lead the meeting, and do a little planning for success.
At the Lobby Meeting
Set the stage – Start by thanking the legislator. If they’ve been supportive of your issue in the past, thank them for it. If they haven’t, thank them for their time. Then, introduce yourself and allow others with you (if you’re with a group) to introduce themselves. Make sure you mention if you’re a constituent of the legislator.
Make Your Case – Use facts. Use statistics. Use personal stories. Go in with pre-thought, strong messages. Legislators are compelled by two things: emotional, personal stories and cold, hard facts. Try to present your issue with both of those aspects. Show why it’s important.
Ask, Ask, Ask – Know what your “ask” is before you go in. What yes-or-no question do you want to put to the elected? Are you going to ask them to sign onto a bill? Vote for a proposed law? Use their influence to speak to their colleagues? Something else? Know what it is and make sure you make that ask explicitly, ideally more than once.
Listen – Leave time to answer questions. (If you don’t know the answers, that’s OK. Just say you’ll follow up later.) Leave time for the legislator to give you their thoughts. Sometimes you get really interesting intel when a legislator is speaking off-the-cuff. Of course, a legislator may also try to take you off-track, so be ready to steer back to the topic at hand if necessary.
Leave a Leave Behind – Leave something behind about your topic. It is ideally a fact sheet or info about your issue. It could also be a news article or a report or something you create. It could be a petition postcard or petitions that you’ve collected that you hand deliver. The leave behind can be something more creative, too. It should be some physical item that will remind them about the issue you discussed and why it’s important.
Suggest a Follow-Up Plan – Leave your contact info and ask for the contact info of the person you spoke with (if it was staff and not the elected themselves). If it makes sense, suggest a follow-up meeting or invite them to an upcoming event related to the issue or ask if you can follow up in two week’s time if they need time to think about your ask.
After the Lobby Meeting
Debrief and Share Back – Write down some notes from the meeting. If you had other people with you, get together (when you’re out of earshot of the legislator’s office) and do a quick debrief. Note what was said, how the elected responded to your ask, and what follow-up is needed.
Send a Follow-Up Note – Always send a thank you note for the visit, which doubles as a reminder to the office about who you are and what issue you were lobbying for. Don’t be afraid to drop that ask one more time in your thank you note, too. “Thank you for meeting with me to discuss ISSUE, which is important because MESSAGE. I hope you’ll consider ASK.”
Hot Tips and Hot Takes
Dress for Success – Look, I’m not going to recommend dressing all corporate business casual. I realize that is loaded with all sorts of classism and I’m not here for it. I’ve worn a suit to some lobby visits and jeans to others. There isn’t one right way. Think about what you want your “look,” whatever that is, to convey, but don’t overthink “dressing up.” It can be very powerful to show up “as yourself” to a meeting, especially when you’re a constituent. Your power suit can be whatever makes you feel confident because that’s the point of a power suit, not to impress anyone else, to bring out your inner power.
Meeting with Staff Is Actually the Best – A lot of times, you’ll find that it’s hard to meet with your actual legislator, especially when you get up to the state and federal offices. You may have to accept a meeting with that legislator’s staff. Personally, I love meeting with staff. The downside is that they’re never going to give you a hard answer to your ask, unless they already know what their boss has decided. The upside is that they tend to be more informed—these are the people who actually read the bills—and they are also way closer than you are to their boss. In other words, if you can convince the staff, they have the legislator’s ear on a daily basis.
Two Kinds of Power Visits – Lobby visits can be a way to show power in numbers. It can be an opportunity to pack a room and make a clear visual show of support for an issue to a legislator. You are less likely to get big wins in a meeting like this, but it succeeds in showing meaningful support and pushing the legislator on your issue. Smaller visits where there are just a few key folks meeting with a legislator are better for getting into substantive and challenging discussions with a legislator or getting them to consider a controversial stance. Both kinds of visits are useful tactics and it can help to think strategically about what makes the most sense to meet your goals.
What other tips do you seasoned lobbyists have? What questions do you have about lobbying? Have you ever been on a lobby visit before? What was it like? What was surprising? (I was surprised about how boring and sterile the offices are in our state legislative offices. They are BLEAK, ya’ll.)
Leave ’em in the comments, friends!