The American River Democrats were pleased to welcome guest speaker Bethany Snyder to the January 2018 meeting, so she could share her expertise in contacting lawmakers and getting results. She said that using resistance and bringing attention via protests and demonstrations is only one part of the equation—being an advocate and building relations with lawmakers and their staff is equally, if not more important to getting your point across in a meaningful way.
Currently from Roseville, Snyder is from Minneapolis, and has 15 years experience in the advocacy, legislative, and policy worlds. While currently an outreach and communications director for a health care consulting firm, she has also served as a grassroots director, lobbyist, and staff member for Senator Al Franken.
She said that advocacy is a three-legged stool, consisting of media advocacy, direct lobbying, and grassroots engagement. All three are equally important. Media advocacy involves getting your story out there, through letters to media (newspapers, etc.), stories shared through traditional (TV and radio) and social media, and other ways to publicly share an issue. Lobbying gets a bad name in the pubic eye, as we picture highly paid agents of wealthy corporations trading donations for favors from lawmakers. But the truth is, all causes have lobbyists of some sort, including environmentalists, seniors, the LGBT community, immigration rights, and so on. They are just people bringing their message directly and professionally to the lawmakers, and often help craft legislation. Grassroots engagement is people like us contacting our representatives directly, and lawmakers do want to hear directly from their voters. Regular communication can be one of the most effective tools to getting your cause heard.
There are of course multiple levels of government to advocate to. The local level includes city and county councils and boards, school boards, sheriffs, and elected commissioners. They can be the easiest and most direct representatives to contact, as they usually have smaller constituencies and are located in your community. State level government includes your Assembly Member and State Senator, the Governor, Attorney General, Insurance Commissioner, Secretary of State, and other elected state-wide officers. Federal level includes your Congressional representatives, Senators, and of course, the President.
The big question, then, is what is the best way to contact them and be heard? There are many effective ways, but one of the best is the good old-fashioned phone call. Snyder recommends calling when the office is open so you can talk directly to a staff member. Those calls are tallied each day, with your position and ideas noted. (A voicemail after hours will be heard, but they may not understand all your issues, and can’t ask for clarity, so it can be lost.) When calling your rep, Snyder recommends you be personal and professional, share your story, but be short and succinct, and be mindful of the time you are taking. Be sure you have researched the issue so you are accurate in your points, and ask questions in the call, like “Can I count on ___’s support?” Be patient and persistent, and always say thanks to whomever you are speaking to.
Another good method is emailing. Though not as effective as the personal call, it will still be read and recorded, just not as quickly. (There is, of course, no opportunity for dialog if they want clarification, and they are not likely to email back and forth with you.) But your opinions will be noted, and the same protocols as the phone call are recommended; using accurate points, succinct, polite, and asking for support. Traditional mail is not as good as it used to be, as there are now security issues with opening letters, so it can take longer. (Postcards are a good option.) These are scanned and filed like email, so you are heard.
Social media is not a good way to contact your representative, since they don’t usually manage their own accounts, and comments to their posts are usually so full of both praise and hateful trolling that they are mostly ignored. Giving them lots of “likes” to their posts may make them feel good about an issue, but it is not the same as advocacy!
But still the most effective way, when possible, is a personal visit to the office, by one or more people advocating for an issue. There may be a staffer there who deals specifically with that issue, and will be happy to discuss. The same rules as above apply; be knowledgeable and succinct, be polite even if you are against their current position, and value their time (if you waste their limited time going on and on, you become an annoyance rather than an advocate!) They can only see so many people in a day, so make your meeting positive.
Snyder also recommends finding an advocacy group to help you understand the issue more deeply, and to advise what is the best timing to contact your representatives about your issue. If there is a vote or hearing approaching, that is the perfect time to give them your ideas and opinions. If it just concluded or is months away, your thoughts are not as impactful. And remember, always ask the question! So many people give their thoughts without ever requesting what they really want—a vote!
Following up, Snyder shared some of the things that do not work in getting your message through. Being confrontational, lying, being flaky, and contacting lawmakers who do not represent you. (You may want to give Paul Ryan an earful, but unless you have the power to re-elect him, he and his staff don’t care about your opinion!) Contacting members of administrative agencies, like the GAO, DOJ, HUD, HHS, etc. is also useless, as they don’t set policy. They often do allow public comment on an issue, so do provide that as appropriate, like when they are about to destroy a National Park or begin coal mining in your county.
Communication with your representatives is always important, and those who take the time are heard well beyond those who save their feedback for the ballot every few years. Some of the myths or perceived barriers to taking action that Snyder shared include the idea that you are not an expert so you opinion doesn’t matter. Not true, make your voice heard based on what you do know—others certainly will! Some think they won’t be listened to—also not true—all politicians have staff to keep track of the feedback they get, even if they don’t agree, it is noted. What if your representative is the polar opposite in political orientation? Let them know anyway, they may not change, but they may “evolve” with enough feedback, and if it is overwhelming, they may even change their vote, or sit out. (Feedback to some Senators saved the Affordable Care Act, at least for now.) What if they have already decided, or cast their vote? Let them know how you feel; positive feedback keeps them going for next time, and negative may keep them wary of their choices. When your representative is on your side, let them know that you are on theirs!