So You Want to be a Citizen Advocate

Not too long ago, I unexpectedly ran into a neighbor in the state Capitol. I learned that she became passionate about medical cannabis after a friend was diagnosed with a challenging form of cancer. But while she was passionate about the issue, she had no idea how to effectively speak with her state legislators and their staff.

She asked if I could tell her everything she needed to know about lobbying in five minutes or less. I realized that as concise as I wanted to be, there was no way that I could summarize my 25 years of working inside the Capitol in a way that would immediately prepare her to walk the halls of the Capitol in a purposeful and effective way.

What I could do was give her advice that would allow her to prepare for some meaningful future meetings. While lobbying for a client is in certain ways different from lobbying for a personal interest you care about, there remain similarities which would help anyone in speaking to their legislators or legislative staff. And, in fact, when constituent advocates lobby their legislators, they may in fact have an advantage that professional lobbyists may not have in that they are trying to influence their own legislators, elected officials who they can personally vote for. Being a constituent has its perks. Professional lobbyists and their clients don’t always have the benefit of meeting with the same legislators that they can vote for on Election Day.

Let’s start with the basics of lobbying. To be most effective, you want to do your homework. There are 253 legislators in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Everyone in Pennsylvania is represented by both a State House member, referred to as a Representative, and a State Senator, referred to as a Senator. Their backgrounds and personalities differ greatly. But what they each have in common is that they are elected by their constituents and are thus accountable to their constituents, which is in part why they open their district office and Capitol office doors to serve you and your families.

If you saw a story about a piece of legislation that will have an adverse impact and you want to speak with your legislators, it is first important to learn about them, the legislation, and why the bill was introduced.

1. Check out what their focus is legislatively. Which legislative committees do they serve on? What are they in the news for? Their official government website page and a simple Google search should get you the information you need. Use your research skills to learn more and save your interaction with the legislative or district offices for the issue that you’re interested in advocating on.

2. Check out their webpage to learn about their background. Did they happen to attend any of the local schools that you or your family attend(ed)? See what you have in common with these legislators. Friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. What was their occupation prior to coming to Harrisburg?

3. You’ll find all legislation on www.legis.state.pa.us. A simple keyword search allows you to identify bills of interest. Read the legislation you care about. Another piece of information that can help you better understand the political landscape of why a bill is being introduced would be to read the cosponsorship memo that is posted on the website with the legislation.

These are only a few of the many tools that lobbyists use when looking at legislation to better understand what a bill attempts to do, who introduced it and why is it being introduced, but it’s all you need as a constituent advocate to move forward.

Once you’ve done your homework, you’ll want to determine what you want to say in your meeting with your legislator or their legislative staff. Write a brief elevator speech (3–5 minutes) that helps you to best and most succinctly explain what you’d like them to do and why you’d like them to do it. Provide the brief policy reason for what you want to have happen and give a specific personal story to support your position. The most personal and thoughtful stories can be especially provocative in their impact on legislators. Then see if they have questions and ask how you can follow up — is there additional information they would like you to provide them?

Having a one page leave behind document that you can share with the legislator and staff is especially helpful because it will reinforce the points you’ve made in your discussion, and it can also serve as a reminder to you of the key message points to make while you’re in the meeting. A leave behind document should include your name and contact information, so that they can reach out to you if they have questions.

At the end of your conversation, be sure to thank them for their time. And before you leave, see if you can get their business cards so you can further follow up with a thank you note that may also remind them of the importance of the legislative issue you brought to their attention. Remember, legislation doesn’t generally become law overnight. Chances are that you may want to return to your legislator’s office or to another office to follow up after some time passes because your bill may have moved, or the policy issue may have become timelier as a result of current events.

Be sure to be kind and respectful when reaching out. Especially during these meetings, you want to recognize that the legislators are busy, but have made time for you to meet with them or one of their staffers. Grow your relationship with your elected officials. But be considerate of their time and appreciative of their efforts. Good luck!

This article was written for Ridge Policy Group by Government Affairs Counsel Laura Jan Kuller. Laura does state lobbying for corporations and non-profits with a focus on Pennsylvania legislative advocacy.

Written by

Ridge Policy Group

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